Review Date: 12-4-12
Release Date: 12-25-12 (USA)
Runtime: 157 minutes
Period: 1815 – 1832, France
Costume Designer: Paco Delgado
Most of us who work in the entertainment industry have seen at least one stage production of Les Misérables in our lives. To miss this musical theater opus would be like not seeing ET or Star Wars; it’s that big of a deal. Les Miz (as it is colloquially called) was first introduced to the stage in the form of a musical in the 1980s. It was a sensation. The music is haunting, the story is relatable, and it packs an emotional wallop. It is no surprise, then, that the current movie version of the musical does the same.
The novel, by Victor Hugo, has been committed to film numerous times since the 1930s. Here, though, we have a fully realized musical with amazing visual effects, great performances, and a sort of gritty realism that breathes new life into the old material. It is a new imagining of the musical – much grander than you could ever conceive – and production and costume design play a big part.
The story is the more or less the same – Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) is a prisoner/slave (his crime: stealing bread). He gets under the skin of policeman/inspector Javert (Russell Crowe). Once paroled, Valjean finds God and changes his ways… except he skips out on his parole and decides to reinvent himself. Valjean surfaces years later as the mayor of a small town. He owns a factory where Fantine (Anne Hathaway) works. She gets into an argument at the factory and is fired. Her world deteriorates as she must do whatever she can to get money to support her child, Cosette (Isabelle Allen). First she sells her necklace, then her hair, then her teeth, then her body and soul. Valjean rescues her from the street and is at her deathbed. He vows to take care of Cosette and give her a good life. He pays off Cosette’s guardians, Monsieur and Madame Thénardier (Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham-Carter), innkeepers who make a tidy living stealing from their clients.
Years later, Valjean and grown-up Cosette (Amanda Seyfried) are still on the run from Javert. They end up in Paris, where a revolution is being organized by students Marius (Eddie Redmayne) and Enjolras (Aaron Tveit). Marius and Cosette fall in love at first sight, and Marius enlists the help of the Thénardier’s now-grown daughter Éponine (Samantha Barks) to help track Cosette’s whereabouts. Éponine is secretly in love with Marius, and when she sees him with Cosette, she is heartbroken. Valjean, fearing Javert on his tail, plans to leave France for England the next day, the day of the revolution Marius has been planning.
The revolution begins during the funeral procession of General Lamarque (one of the “good guys” who helped the poor). Revolutionaries fill the streets, and draw fire from the government soldiers. Javert is undercover among the revolutionaries as a spy. He is soon outed by the child revolutionary Gavroche (played excellently by Daniel Huttlestone), and held as a prisoner. Meanwhile, the battle begins at the barricade. Éponine, dressed as a man so she can fight, is mortally wounded. She dies slowly, in the comfort of Marius’ arms. Gavroche delivers a letter from Marius to Cosette. Valjean reads it and heads to the barricade to find Marius. A gun battle ensues between the revolutionaries and army snipers. Valjean sees Javert is their prisoner. The revolutionaries turn Javert over to Valjean so that he can do what he likes with him, meaning, kill him. Valjean takes Javert into an alley and mercifully lets him go. Javert coldly promises that he will not stop searching for Valjean, to bring him to justice.
Back at the barricade, the army shoots little Gavroche, and an all-out assault begins. Marius is wounded, and all of his revolutionary brothers are killed. Valjean, uninjured, takes Marius and drags him through the sewer to get help. Javert is waiting for them at the sewer exit – with a pistol. Valjean begs, then pushes past him, knowing Javert won’t harm him. Javert, agog at his inability to arrest Valjean, and ashamed at his inability to do his job, jumps from a bridge to his death.
Marius begins to heal from his wounds, and soon he and Cosette are to be married. Valjean talks to him in private, telling him of his prison time. Valjean doesn’t want Cosette’s reputation spoiled by his past, so he decides to leave town. At the wedding, the Thénardiers show up and create a scene, but they tell Marius where Valjean is hiding out. He and Cosette take off from the wedding and head to the convent to find Valjean.
At this point, Valjean has lost his will to live – he is sickly, and at death’s door. He’s making his peace with death, and preparing to leave this world. Cosette and Marius show up and are able to talk with Valjean before he dies. Fantine escorts him away from his earthly body. He walks out to the barricade (now, a huge barricade) and sees everyone who has come before – everyone sings.
The costumes in the film stay true to the stage musical versions I have seen. The poverty depicted here is gritty and horrible – the garments worn by the beggars and poor street people are disgustingly dirty. The filth that surrounds them leaves no doubt as to why everyone was contracting diseases and dying.
When we meet Jean Valjean, he is a prisoner/slave at a shipyard for boats. Water pounds him and his fellow prisoners. They are barefoot, freezing, and it looks utterly miserable, no pun intended. Valjean’s hair is all clumpy and shaved in areas, probably due to lice prevention or mange, and he has a huge scar across the back of his skull. His eyes are bloodshot and he looks like hell. As with Valjean, most of the prisoners wear some red in their costume – blood red.
Javert, in this same scene, is clean and crisp in his smart blue uniform. The setup is apparent right away – he’s clean, the lines of his uniform are immaculate. The prisoners look like drowned rats. Red vs. blue.
Valjean wanders into a church graveyard (no one will take him in) looking for some kind – any kind – of shelter. A kind bishop takes him in and gives him food and a bed. You can’t see it in this picture, but he wears wooden clogs – a FANTASTIC detail that many watching the film will miss. They are the classic one-piece-of-wood, hand-hewn wooden clogs, appropriate for the era and for someone of his caste.
Next time we see Valjean it is in the factory. Look how he’s cleaned up. You would hardly recognize him. As a counterpoint to the blood red he wears as a prisoner, he now wears a green coat, fitted and warm. He looks very respectable; a total turnaround from the last time we saw him.
Here we meet Fantine. In her factory worker’s garb, her lavender dress is covered up by sleevelets and an apron… but you can see the color. Whereas the other factory workers wear variations on earth tones, Fantine stands out in solid lavender. Well, it’s kind of an orchid-lavender. It’s a very beautiful color, vibrant and feminine.
As Fantine begins her descent into hell, figuratively, anyway, her dress begins to lose color. Little by little the lavender seems to disappear, as she cuts her hair, sells her teeth, and finally…
She steels herself to sell her body. Here you see her as she appears in the scene before she turns her first trick. With the lighting in the film in this scene, the dress almost appears a pale blue/grey. The life has been sucked out of Fantine, that is for sure, and there is no more color in that dress.
Fantine is in her underwear when she sings the famous song “I Dreamed a Dream” – she is at the bottom of the barrel in every sense. Look at the grime and filth on this dress. The lovely lavender color seems like a distant memory at this point. The song is shot in one take, in a close-up.
When Valjean finds her in the alley, she is wearing a blood-red dress, echoing the color of the prison garb that Valjean himself wore earlier in the movie. Valjean recognizes a fellow prisoner in that sense, and takes her away from the misery that surrounds her.
Javert is still hot on the trail of Valjean when he confronts him at his office. Here you see Valjean’s commanding figure in the dark heavy coat against Javert in his comparably thin blue uniform. Javert makes a power play, and Valjean doesn’t let on that it disturbs him. Visually, the point is made as well. Valjean is formidable.
After Fantine dies, Valjean rescues young Cosette from the Thénardiers. Here we see Madame in all her glory, with a few of her inn friends. Her bodice utilizes embroidery from antique Spanish matador costumes.
The costume designer, Paco Delgado, developed back-stories with the actors to inform the costume choices. Bonham-Carter thought that Madame Thénardier’s mother was from Spain, thus the matador reference. Monsieur Thénardier is, was, and always will be a thief and a charlatan. His fancy military jacket would have been something he stole from a high-ranking officer at Waterloo… and he now takes credit for having earned that rank. These details are quite lovely.
Valjean hightails it out of there with Cosette in his arms. He knows that Javert is on to him, and he must hurry. Look at poor Cosette’s dirty costume. For as “well” as the Thénardiers have been living, this is how they treat their charge – poor, poor young Cosette, barefoot in the cold of winter.
Around this time in the film, we see Javert in another incarnation of his uniform. It’s a very strong and scary silhouette, one of authority. He cuts a menacing figure.
We meet Marius, who comes from a wealthy family – as you can see in his costume – but he fights the revolution anyway, on ethical grounds. Look at the use of blue in his costume. Blue, perhaps used to mean the old regime, topped with the dirty, muddy brown of his coat, representing the people.
We also meet Éponine – look at her costume! It’s a muddy greenish color. No one else wears this color in the film, but you can guess that it might be a tip-off to her jealousy, a bit green with envy, perhaps? Her tiny waist and slight figure are remarkable in this costume. The audience very nearly gasped at the sight of that narrow waist. She looks feminine, and the colors make her a part of her environment, but with that big leather belt and buckle, we get the sense that she is also strong and tough.
When Marius and Cosette have their “Heart Full of Love” number, it’s set in the courtyard of the house where she and Valjean are hiding out. Butterflies flit around her. She is wearing this absolutely gorgeous pale cream-colored robe – it’s a knockout; the exact thing you’d expect of an ingénue. She looks beautiful.
Éponine, upon hearing the beautiful love duet, runs home and sings her fate in “On My Own” in the pouring rain. Look how her beautiful costume is trashed. The flimsy fabric clings to her like the hug she’s never had. It’s very sad.
As for the revolutionary Enjolras, here’s where we see defiant red in action. Whereas before, the use of red (and specifically blood red) was used on prisoners, this bright red takes on new meaning. As he sings in the song “Red and Black”: “Red – the blood of angry men! Black – the dark of ages past! Red – a world about to dawn! Black – the night that ends at last!” Really, you kinda need to put this guy in a red coat. Use the reference and make the statement – well done here.
After Javert is released from being held prisoner by Valjean and the revolutionaries, he shows up wearing his uniform. Here it is, in all its simplicity. It’s dark, regal, and austere. AND there is a nice touch of red in his medal ribbon. He finds young Gavroche dead behind the barricade, and places the red medal over his lifeless heart. Has Javert gone soft?! Yes, and the red (blood) that he gives to the dead Gavroche is symbolically important in this scene. It’s his apology. This costume, the plain dark grey uniform, is the costume he wears when he commits suicide. All of the hubris of that uniform effectively kills him.
The wedding of Marius and Cosette is interrupted. Cosette runs into the convent to find Valjean, and here’s a good picture of her wedding gown. It’s a stunner. Cosette, in all of her innocence and grace, is usually costumed in light colors. The wedding gown is, of course, no exception. Look at the detail – the embroidery, the lace. It’s really something to behold. It’s a confection befitting a bride.
When Cosette and Marius finally reach Valjean and say their goodbyes, they are a bride and groom in a chapel with a dying man. On some level, one might think that Valjean could die, satisfied that his daughter would be in good hands with her new husband. But I think that the moment in the film is played with a wistful sense of a job left undone. To see Cosette and Marius so young and fresh, headed into their new life together, and to be dying… you’re going to need to see the movie and tell me what you think about this juxtaposition. I will say – there was not a dry eye in the house for this scene. It was very moving.
Paco Delgado and production designer Eve Stewart spoke at a Q & A after this particular screening, and they had some interesting things to say. Among the interesting tidbits: Paco and his costume team had about 4 – 5 months of prep, and a budget of around £1 million. In U. S. dollars, that’s about $1.6 million. And yet, he said that it didn’t seem like enough. It is never enough, right? The costume team was comprised of an untold number of people – with workshops in four countries, it was impossible for Mr. Delgado to name a solid number of costume crew, but it was massive.
He looked to the novel for inspiration – the novel has a lot of small detail in describing characters, scenery and setting, and it proved helpful to both him and the production design team.
Mr. Delgado and his team found a number of periodicals at the Victoria and Albert museum from the time period that contained actual patterns for women’s hats. They used these patterns to create new hats for principals, and they are really beautiful!
They had to costume so many people – background, etc., – and the film took place over such a long span of time (1815 – 1832) that they would use costumes on the rich people in 1815, then break them down, making those same costumes look old for the 1832 portion of the film and put them on the poor people, saving the money it would cost to buy or make new garments. He called the age/dye/breakdown team the “Char-Grill Team” due to their prolific use of blow torches to age the costumes.
An interesting side note – the singing in the film all happened live and on-camera – no playback of pre-recorded singing. Here is a great featurette about how this worked. Basically a pianist would be sitting off-stage with a keyboard, playing the notes and basic accompaniment for the actors, who had a bug in their ear so they could hear it and stay on key while singing live. Then, later – in postproduction – the orchestration was added, based on the tempo and performance of the actor. It’s pretty astounding. But along those lines, all of the fabric, sets and props had to be totally noise-free so that the recording of the singing would not be disturbed. Along those lines – the horses in the film had to wear special rubber horseshoes so that they wouldn’t clack on the cobblestone. Every fabric used in every costume had to be exhaustively tested for rustle and sound disturbance.
I think that this film is going to be a real crowd-pleaser this holiday season. It is a classic, beloved tale and the performances are fantastic. Hugh Jackman is absolutely sensational as Valjean. I was blown away by the depth of feeling he brought to the character. Eddie Redmayne as well – who knew he could sing?!?! It was all incredible, all of it. I would encourage you to see this film, but I don’t think you’re going to need my encouragement. The film kind of sells itself – and I really hope you enjoy it as much as I did. Great job, Paco Delgado and crew! The costumes looked fabulous!!