In the back of the program for Les Miserables, there was an advertisement: Coming in 1992, to movie theaters near you. Well, 20 years later it has arrived. I’m glad they waited. First, is Les Miserables a perfect film? No. But, what I imagined a perfect adaptation of the stage musical to be and what the producers and director imagined it to be are two different things. Unfortunately, I am not either the producer or the director of this film, so what they have given us, I will have to settle for. There are two ways in which a director could approach Les Miserables: First, go big. After all, the book is epic (1500 pages). The stage show is epic (three hours). Most movie versions have been epic as well (I honestly like the one with Anthony Perkins and John Gielgud over Liam Neeson and Geoffrey Rush). Or, make it intimate. What director Tom Hooper has done is make an epic film of an epic story feel intimate, not an easy task.
This musical is not Chicago or Mamma Mia or The Producers or any other of your traditional musicals. It is an opera, more or less. The entire film is sung through with the exception of about 20 lines. This musical is not for the faint of heart either. Where on the stage one can let imagination take over (for instance in the sewers) there is no need for one’s imagination as Jean Valjean (played by Hugh Jackman) is carrying Marius (played by Eddie Redmayne) through the sewers of Paris. What this film/musical is, is fantastic. Are there problems with the film, yes there are. But, anyone who is a lover of the original source material or the Broadway play will love this movie or should love this movie.
I first saw the film on Christmas Day, when it opened. Although I thoroughly enjoyed it, I was not 100% sure of its greatness. Being a fan of the show for nearly 25 years, I went again. The second time was the charm. I am now hooked and believe it is one of the best movie musicals ever made. The problems with the film, are not ones others seem to have. Tom Hooper’s (The King’s Speech) use of close-up’s was masterful. It brought the film to the audience member. When Fantine (Anne Hathaway) sings I Dreamed a Dream, the close-up brings us right up to Ms. Hathaway and makes the audience understand and feel her pain. The other major solos, Jean Valjean’s soliloquy and Eponine’s (new comer Samantha Barks) On My Own bring’s the audience into the character’s lives and makes this epic film, intimate and personable. The use of camera, specifically, the close-up also give the audience member a feeling of being God. That we are looking down at these people, their lives and they are singing and praying to us, for mercy. It is an effect which makes the film that much more emotional for the viewer.
Another technique which aids in telling this tale is Hooper’s use of hand-held cameras. There have been complaints about the jostling, but it gives the student uprising and the scenes of the poor a sense of realism. It brings the audience down to the people. It makes the viewer feel apart of the uprising. I makes the viewer feel as though he or she is one of the poor or walking on the docks with Fantine. I’ve never been a fan of this technique, because it is over used and seldom adds anything to the story telling, but this time it works.
The final element which makes this adaptation work so well is the live singing. I’m not sure if this is how all future movie musicals will be made, but it is now a gold standard. If the actors had pre-recorded their singing, there would be much less emotion. Much has been written about I Dreamed a Dream but the live singing works even better during Fantine’s death scene. If that had been lip-synched, the audience would understand how petrified Fantine is of her impending death. The audience would miss out on her fever induced hallucinations and how she really believed Cosette was there, running toward her. Those are things that cannot be dubbed.
As far as the acting is concerned; the entire cast is phenomenal. However, there are some standouts. Anne Hathaway as Fantine steals the movie. You want her in every scene and when she comes back at the end of the film, you feel so much better that she is there to take you through the ending. She should be a lock for Best Supporting Actress and should win. I cannot recall a better performance from an actor. Hugh Jackman, the consummate showman loses himself in Jean Valjean. Better known for playing Wolverine in the X-Men series, Jackman shows what he is made of in this once in a lifetime portrayal and brings his “A” game through most of the film. The one flaw, “Bring Him Home”. It is probably the toughest song in the score and Jackman just didn’t have the lungs for it. Though he did an admirable job with the song, it just didn’t work. Should that disqualify him from Oscar consideration, not in the least. The entirety of the movie rests on his broad shoulders, and just as he drags the mast of the wounded ship to Javert’s feet at the beginning of the film, he still has that same strength right up until the end.
Newcomer, Samantha Barks, who portrayed Eponine in London and at the 25th Anniversary Concert, is magnificent. Unfortunately, she has far to little screen time and her duet with Marius is cut short. She is someone to watch in the years to come as she has a great screen presence and smile to light up the Hollywood sign. If Anne Hathaway had not been cast as Fantine, Barks would be in the running for that Best Supporting Actress Oscar. Helena Bonham Carter, as Mme. Thenardier and Sasha Baron Cohen as M. Thenardier are the comic relief in this film, which needs it. It is unfortunate that some of their are either cut short or missing altogether; specifically Dog Eats Dog. The work wonderfully together and have great chemistry as the devious scum of the Paris underside. One of these days, Ms. Carter will be given a role which will earn her the Oscar she deserves, unfortunately, she is over-shadowed by too many other standouts in this fantastic cast.
The casting which everyone has been talking about is that of Russell Crowe as Inspector Javert. It’s true, his vocals are not up to where Mr. Jackman and Ms. Hathaway’s are, yet there is something about his performance that keeps me rooting for him. I found his rendition of Stars to be incredibly moving and his steadfastness in his beliefs to be enlightening. He is a stoic holdover from a time when a criminal is always a criminal and should be treated as such. His Javert, though vocally challenged shows the audience a soul which has been lacking in the Broadway and London iterations. I can forgive the weak voice because his Javert has heart.
The two weakest links to the cast, if you can call them weak, are Eddie Redmayne and Amanda Seyfried. I found Mr. Redmayne’s Marius to be a wimp and his vocal stylings to be annoying. His signature song, Empty Chairs at Empty Tables, while a wonderful and emotional ballad to his fallen comrades, fails to connect. It is also difficult to believe he is in love with Seyfried’s Cosette after just looking at her once. Of all the characters in the film, these two are the mostly two-dimensional. While Seyfried and Redmayne can act their characters are not fully drawn out and therefore we are not emotionally invested in them.
Les Miserables is an epic. It has universal themes which hit close to home, especially in our current economic climate. Poverty, redemption, loss, and revolution are so prevalent in our world today one cannot turn on the television without seeing a story about a country in the midst of civil war, or people begging for food or medicine. Victor Hugo’s masterwork is as timeless as ever and the musical, which has been around in one form or another for over 30 years, brings this masterpiece to the masses in a way we can all understand.