It sounded mildly like a toilet flushing. It was 2005, I was in 10th grade (it may have been 11th, but I’m 85% sure it was 10th grade- but it’s a soft 85), and I was performing in a junior production of Les Misérables with a bunch of my friends. It was us and a bunch of middle schoolers, along with some older kids that were either seniors or college students, I can’t remember- I just remember that they looked older and more mature, and they probably didn’t want to be doing a junior production but had no other options. I wanted to be Valjean, the Hugh Jackman role in the new movie, but instead I was given Javert, the Russell Crowe role. I took my part very seriously, trying to dive into the inspector’s psyche, because, you see, as a 10th grader I was uniquely qualified to understand the inner workings of a middle-aged, 19th-century French legalist police officer. When Javert (SPOILER) jumps into the river near the end of the show, they played a sound effect for when I was supposed to hit the water, which sounded mildly like a toilet flushing. That was our art.
Regardless of my humble experience with the show, Les Misérables is my favorite musical. So maybe I’m not the most objective of audiences for the new movie, directed by The King’s Speech’s Tom Hooper. I’m either predisposed to hate it, because it’s not the stage show I’m used to, or I’m predisposed to love it, because I’ve got an affection for the characters already built into my heart after loving them throughout my adolescence. The early trailers looked perfect. But there was a certain amount of trepidation as I went into the movie theater with my fiancée. No one wants to be disappointed by something they love.
The movie was difficult to get used to at first. It’s filmed differently than most other movie musicals. Instead of recreating the trappings of the stage show (a la The Producers or, more successfully, Hairspray), Tom Hooper has taken a different approach. He’s eschewed the spectacle and decided to focus in on the characters, literally; most of the songs are filmed in off-kilter closeups of the singers. Songs and scenes that pan over the action come almost as a shock. But my fiancée didn’t even notice this, and once you get used to it, it becomes effective. The songs become about the characters in a way that’s unfamiliar to fans of the stage show. Onstage, like many musicals that have become entrenched in our pop culture, the songs threaten to be about themselves, singing their own praises. In Hooper’s movie, the songs are far more personal, far more emotional, and far more redemptive.
You’ve never heard “I Dreamed a Dream” the way Anne Hathaway sings it. Her Fantine is more waiflike than we’re used to, the song sung with less operatic power; but for the first time, I understand it as more than a song but as a woman’s lament of a life that didn’t live up to her imaginings. And so it was with many of the movie’s songs. I had heard them all maybe hundreds of times, and yet it was a new experience. Even Russell Crowe’s songs were effective, despite his ineffective singing voice.
But all of the songs would mean nothing if the story that carried them wasn’t profound. By the end of the movie, I was crying like a baby. A quiet baby, with tears running down his cheeks, but still a baby. For the whole movie, you see Jean Valjean strive to make up for his past sins, and then in the end he realizes it wasn’t enough and that it comes down to grace*. There are few movies, few stories even, that present such a vivid picture of the effects of redemption through grace. It’s a long movie, and some people have straight up hated it, and that’s fine, maybe it’s not their cup of tea. But for me, by the end I was moved by the journey to salvation I had just witnessed. It only strengthened my love for a story I’ve loved since that toilet flush sound effect in 10th grade. I think it will be a story I’ll spend my whole life understanding.
*And Hugh Jackman does a splendid job of conveying his ultimate submission to this truth. Thank goodness the Academy honored him with a nomination.