I Dreamed a Dream


There’s a reason why Victor Hugo’s timeless masterpiece, Les Misérables, is as relevant and meaningful today as it was over a century and a half ago when it was first written.  Simply put, it’s one of the greatest stories every told; a poignant parable of life and death, humanity and inhumanity, love and loss, despair and redemption, and the perilous relationship between the way of the law and the way of grace.

Since its initial publication, Hugo’s epic novel has been adapted nearly a hundred times, first on the stage, and later on film and television, and in radio plays.  The most famous adaptation is probably the Broadway musical from the eighties, which quickly became a pop culture sensation and a global phenomenon, with its powerful and moving songs by Claude-Michel Schlönberg and Herbert Kretzmer (in the English version).

The last major American motion picture version of the story was made in 1998, and starred Liam Neeson as Jean Valjean, Geoffrey Rush as Javert, Uma Thurman as Fantine, and Claire Danes as Cosette.  Now, fourteen years later, this first film adaptation of the 1985 English-language musical recasts the parts with movie stars who all have musical backgrounds, and who are able to sing nearly as well as they can act.  Hugh Jackman, who plays Valjean this time around, actually spent a good bit of his career in musical theatre before breaking into feature films in a big way in the role of Wolverine in 2000’s X-Men, a character whom he continues to portray to this day.  Amanda Seyfried, who plays Cosette in the 2012 film, studied voice and opera, and previously starred in the film adaptation of Mamma Mia!  Russell Crowe, appearing as Javert, has fronted the band TOFOG for many years, although he finds himself a bit over his head here.  And finally, there is Anne Hathaway, who despite only being in a handful of scenes as the tragically beautiful Fantine, steals the show whenever she appears onscreen.  If you can witness her performance of “I Dreamed a Dream” and not tear up, then your heart must be made of stone.  Just go ahead and give her the Oscar now.

The film itself is making Oscar waves, under the accomplished and expert direction of Tom Hooper (The King’s Speech, which netted Hooper two Oscars in 2010 [Best Picture and Best Director]), and well it should, because Hooper has hit another home run with this film.  As a Les Mis virgin (more or less; I had seen clips of the ’98 film, and my younger brother is a huge Les Mis fan, and went through a big phase in high school where it was all Les Mis all the time, so I heard plenty about it from him—plus I’ve heard countless sermon illustrations about Les Mis over the years.  So let’s just say that I had probably made it to second base with Les Mis, but had never gone all the way.), Hooper’s adaptation was all that I could have hoped for.  A sweeping, epic scope, set against the background of French revolution; songs that I had only previously heard bits and pieces of (or in the case of “I Dreamed a Dream,” the whole enchilada courtesy of Susan Boyle [and all respect to Ms. Boyle, but she no longer owns that song]) drifting out of my brother’s bedroom while he emphatically sang along [I distinctly remember him sing-shouting “My name is Jean Valjeaaan!!!”]), huge set pieces captured by a camera that swoops, ducks, and dives, caught up in the emotion even as I was caught up—swept away, as it were, lost in the world of the film.  As cliché as it is to admit, this movie made me laugh and cry, as well as leap out of my seat, applaud—almost as if I were seeing it live on stage, happening right in front of me, performed by some of the finest actors in the world—and yet, all the better, as a stage could never contain the full and terrible grandeur of the massive Bagne of Toulon, the Elephant of the Bastille, or the June Uprising.  This is a great, old-fashioned Hollywood musical that must be experienced on as big a screen as possible; large and loud.

As Les Mis unfolded on the screen before me, I found myself transported to early 19th-century France.  I was there with Valjean as he laboured on the chain gang, and when he found God in the convent.  I cried with Fantine in Montreuil-sur-Mer.  I gasped when Valjean and Javert dueled in the hospital.  Les Misérables had me at the opening number, and never let me go until the amazingly redemptive and uplifting finale.  My heart soured and I applauded with gusto.  I hope that you will, too.

Maybe it’s because I’ve always been a sucker for musicals.  Maybe it’s because I love a redemptive story.  Or maybe I was just in the Christmas spirit, for whatever that’s worth.  But whatever the reason, Les Miserables has earned a special place in both my heart and in my list of the top films of 2012.  Don’t wait for this to hit DVD.  See it now, on the big screen!  The dream is alive!  Viva la France!