In 1994 I saw my first Broadway show at the Imperial Theatre on 45th St. between 7th and 8th Ave. I was just ten years old, and I didn’t fully understand what was going on in the show, but I remember that it left a lasting impression on me, so much so that I would return to the Imperial Theatre another seven times between then and the year I left for college (which, incidentally, happened to be the show’s closing year as well).
That show, if you hadn’t already guessed, was Les Misérables.
A triumph both musically and narratively, Les Mis has been, and always will be, my favorite musical amidst the plethora of Broadway (and off-) shows that I’ve had the privilege of viewing. Musical theatre often translates poorly to film, so you can imagine that I had my misgivings about the movie (given the drivel that was Rent and the mediocre interpretation of The Phantom of the Opera), so despite the excitement I had experienced upon seeing the teaser for the first time during the summer, I began to feel a bit nervous about the film as the release date drew near.
The story of Les Misérables is a story of redemption, of a life transformed by the power of forgiveness. Woven through the tale are stories of the poor fighting for equality and freedom from political oppression, romance and the pain of unrequited love, and the destruction of a life lived in a Pharasaic adherence to the letter of the law with no obeisance to grace.
The film begins as the play does, with the introductory overture and opening number “Look Down,” though instead of the chain gang from the original West End and Broadway productions, the film depicts Valjean as a galley slave. From what I understand, this was a narrative change made in the 2010 international tour production that carried over into the film.
I liked this change. It worked well cinematically to create a grand opening sequence that dazzled and inspired and set the stage (pardon the pun) for what was about to come. As I recall the opening sequence, I can’t imagine the original version carrying as much weight cinematically. What comes to mind is a scene from the 1998 film Les Misérables (starring Liam Neeson as Jean Valjean), and while that scene is certainly compelling, I doubt something similar in this version would do justice to the grandiose nature of this film.
One of my early misgivings about the movie was the casting of Russell Crowe as Javert. I’ll say that my apprehension about him was incorrect, though I can’t say that I was impressed by his performance. My initial concern was that he isn’t as accomplished a singer as the rest of the cast. While that’s true, it wasn’t a pronounced issue. He’s no Philip Quast, and the filmmakers know this, so the orchestration was reinterpreted in order to cater to his voice quality, which worked beautifully. My issue with Crowe isn’t that he has an untrained voice; rather, it’s that he doesn’t convey Javert’s internal struggle terribly well. I didn’t get the sense that he was torn over Valjean’s actions toward him, which made his final soliloquy somewhat confusing (not to mention quite graphic, but for another reason entirely).
That said, Crowe’s Javert had flashes of repentance, most notably in his treatment of young Gavroche, a child who rules the streets of Paris with his urchin-like appeal. Crowe was stoic, a necessary trait for the character, but his problem was that he became unreadable; I was almost completely unable to interpret his performance. Geoffrey Rush, in the 1998 adaptation, mixes stoicism with an extreme passion that blends perfectly and eloquently depicts Javert’s consternation.
The show stealer, in my opinion, was Samantha Barks, the West End actress who was surprised by Cameron Mackintosh’s announcement that director Tom Hooper had selected her to play the role of Éponine in the film. She evoked all the splendor of the original stage production while still translating her performance well to the more intimate eye of the camera. You can see it for yourself in this trailer that uses some of her performance of “On My Own” from the film.
I’m not one of those people who think Marius should’ve fallen in love with Éponine instead of Cosette. (Evidently those people exist.) But I’ll say that Samantha Barks’ performance here coupled with the way the screenplay showcased her character made me care more deeply about her than about Cosette (which is common for me, but I found myself more intrigued by Éponine here than I had been during any of the times I’d seen it on Broadway).
One of the things I enjoyed about the film (though a little difficult to get used to early on) was the constant juxtaposing of extremely intimate camera angles with sweeping epic pans. While it was jarring, I think it helped to convey some of the beauty inherent in Les Mis. Part of what made the Broadway show so compelling was its ability to take you from a powerful and grandiose moment (as in the number “Do You Hear the People Sing?”) to an equally powerful yet contrapuntally intimate scene (as in Valjean’s “Bring Him Home”). Camera work was unusual; there were quite a few very pronounced shots that were framed with reverse looking room, making some scenes a bit uncomfortable to watch.
The film editing was equally as unusual, but in this case I think it worked to their advantage. The film employs a lot of long cuts, and in many cases there are almost no cuts at all through certain songs. While I found it to be a powerful technique in many soliloquies, it was noticeably absent in some, begging the question, “Why are there cuts in this song, but none in the previous?” I found it most pronounced during “Stars.” “What Have I Done?” and “I Dreamed a Dream” contained almost no cuts to speak of (or the cutting was so scarce that what stood out was the long stretch of time between cuts); however, “Stars” was conspicuous in its use of a normal cutting pace. I’m not sure why that’s the case; I’d like to believe it has something to do with the epic nature of the song, but I couldn’t help but think it had more to do with Russell Crowe’s lack of musical talent.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t comment on Anne Hathaway’s performance as Fantine. Then again, what’s there to say? What we see in the trailers is but a microcosm of the performance she puts on throughout her scenes in the film. I can’t even begin to describe how moving and powerful her scenes are, and the distress she conveys in her soliloquy “I Dreamed a Dream” is so palpable, I was moved to tears. It was driving and powerful, displaying, almost tangibly, her complete and utter despair. I’m so grateful that Ms. Hathaway returned this song to its roots. The song had become popular recently in a very dry and white-washed rendition, spurred mostly by a certain Susan Boyle (no offense to her, but her version lacks the emotional fervor that the song calls for). Madalena Alberto recaptured some of that fire, but her performance isn’t popular enough to stop the onslaught of boring versions.
Hathaway’s look is astounding as well. A whole lot of credit goes to the makeup crew for their work here. Anne is a beautiful and alluring woman, but her transformation to a distraught, sickly peasant was awe-striking. It was difficult to watch at times, and almost cringeworthy at one or two moments.
Conversely, we witness Valjean’s transformation from Prisoner #24601 to the wealthy Monsieur Madeleine, a metamorphosis equally as stunning as that of Fantine.
I think it’s worth pausing here and commenting on one of the aspects of Les Misérables that I think makes it stand out from other musical films. Les Misérables was the first musical film wherein the actors sang live on camera without any prerecorded soundtrack to sing along to. What makes this so unique is that when a musical cast records in studio, they either sing perfectly according to the libretto or interpret it based on previous stage productions or recordings. They make their acting decisions in studio, and then when performing for the camera they have to act according to the decisions made in the recording studio, often months before the cameras begin to roll.
What this produces is a soundtrack that is often very clean, but acting that is quite unrealistic or lacking in interpretive drama. The reverse is true of Les Misérables. While the soundtrack may be overly emotional, with breaks in the vocals or less-than-clean vibratos, the singing is filled with emotional tension, and their acting is natural and evocative.
This is probably most pronounced in Hugh Jackman’s portrayal of Jean Valjean. If you’ve heard Jackman perform on Broadway, you probably know that he can sustain a very clean and crisp sound for the stage. However, in this film, he scales his singing voice back in favor of a more dramatic and introspective technique that works extremely well on film, but would be laughable on stage. Here’s an example of that:
There’s something I’d like to point out that shouldn’t really be a help or a hindrance to this film, but simply served as a nod to the fans. The Bishop of Digne is played by none other than Colm Wilkinson, the man who created the singing role of Jean Valjean for both the West End and Broadway productions of the play. He appears twice in the film, and in both instances, I couldn’t help but geek out just a little bit. I loved that he was in the movie.
One of the drawbacks of this film is its ending. Much like the ending of Peter Jackson’s The Return of the King, this ending felt long and unnecessarily drawn out. Just as Tolkien’s book had a particular ending that didn’t translate well in its entirety to film, the Les Misérables stage production had an ending that probably didn’t convert too well to film either. But unlike the ending in The Return of the King, I don’t see any discernable way to shorten it (with the exception of cutting out the wedding entirely as the 1998 film does). The finale is unremovable, and there’s no practical way to get to the finale without going through the ending. That said, it’s a minor quarrel.
All in all this film just works. It’s been said that stage musicals don’t translate well to film, and I’d probably agree to an extent, but grading a musical film on the merits of its stage counterpart seems a bit narrow-minded to me. The two media are very different from each other, and I think a solid distinction can—and should—be made between musical film and musical theatre. Characters will come across differently. The storyline will undergo shifts that might not exist in the stage production. With that in mind, this film should be enjoyed on its own merits. It’s an interpretation of a play using a medium other than the stage. In my opinion (and according to those interpretive rules), it translates almost seamlessly.
If there’s one criticism I have of this film, it’s the pacing. It’s probably strange to say that a film needed to be shorter and longer at the same time, but I think that’s the case here. It’s a long film—clocking in at over 2 and ½ hours. Yet it feels as though director Tom Hooper knew that it was going to be a long film and rushed through scenes without any establishing material to set the stage for where he was taking the audience. That said, it’s possible that, in order to remain faithful to the libretto, it was necessary for him to jump from scene to scene. Either way, the scene changes were often a bit jarring, and it would sometimes take me a moment to discern what was going on in a scene.
Now that I’ve waxed terribly verbose about this movie, I’ll end with this: Les Misérables is a must-see. Easily my favorite film this season (though that opinion might be tainted by just how dear this musical is to my heart; I mean, “Stars” was my default audition song whenever none was selected for me), Les Mis is a cinematic experience that I won’t soon forget. Very few films have the ability to move me to tears. This one does. And it does so on numerous occasions.