I have had quite a few people ask me what I thought of the film “Les Misérables”. I am not sure if they want to know my initial reaction, how it affected me emotionally, or my professional opinion, so I decided to make them wait while I write a formal review. So here it is: my full review of Les Misérables, the film.
First, I must provide a bit of background. I am a relative late-comer to the “laymizz” party, having only seen the traveling Broadway show for the first time this past summer. I thought it was fantastic, possibly the best show I’ve ever seen in my life. The cast was amazing, and the leads were even better than I thought was possible even on Broadway. Anyone who is familiar with the storyline, adapted from the Victor Hugo novel, knows that you really can’t go wrong with a great story, no matter the treatment. Overall, it was a great experience, so I was intrigued to find out how they were going to adapt this for film. I received my answer to that question last week.
An initial thought about this is one that suggests that a film adaptation like this does have some merit, though is not free of detriment. What do I mean by this? Adapting a stage show to film definitely allows it to become more personal in the sense that you can feel closer to the action. Camera angles can get right up close on the actors, so you can see the expressions on their faces. In some ways, this provides a better overall perception of emotion from the standpoint of the viewer. Oftentimes, when viewing a stage show, one is seated much too far from the stage to see any kind of facial expressions, so actors are forced to express emotion through gestures, causing the action on stage to seem “overacted” at times. This may be one of the reasons why so many film-buffs are not fans of Broadway shows, although I have heard that the main reason is the sudden bursting into song. But I digress.
This film lends itself very well to its ability to hone in on the characters and their emotions. It is extremely well-acted, and you are able to clearly discern this for yourself through the benefit of the film medium. As such, the actors must be much more discerning when it comes to how they perceive the emotions and motivations of their characters. This provides for a deeper narrative, and causes this picture to really shine where it counts. However, one of the other “benefits” of film is cinematography. One can contribute a great deal to the story, deciding on how the camera moves, as well as choosing sets and angles to provide the most impact. In this aspect, I think the film suffers in its adaptation from the stage. Sometimes those closeups of actors’ faces singing last far too long, leaving a desire for more movement. Other times, the camera is unnecessarily panning or zooming out, taking away from the emotion of a scene. It seemed to be the work of an unsure cinematographer, in this case, Danny Cohen, who has more experience in television than in film, let alone musicals. Still, there are some very beautiful shots in the film. The opening, where the convicts are pulling the ship into the dock, is definitely one. Some of the overhead shots of the city, as well as the enclosed spaces within its alleyways are quite good as well. However, one particularly bad piece of cinematography that sticks out in my mind (aside from lingering too long on the actors faces while they sing) happens at the end of “Bring Him Home”. Valjean is pleading with God to let Marius, the suitor for his beloved Cosette, survive the battles. It is a very intimate moment, and as it ends, the camera pans to a top-down shot, and quickly zooms out to a wide-shot of the city, ripping you completely from the intimacy without giving it a chance to end. The next bit of action is the second attack on the fort, but we see the soldiers marching on it through the streets from a bird’s-eye view. All this, as the song ends. What would have been wrong with a nice fade to black, followed by the abrupt sound of cannon fire? That would have allowed the moment to end properly, and then BANG! We are back into the action again. There were quite a few moments like this, that left me puzzled.
One cannot talk about Les Misérables without mentioning the portrayal of characters and, of course, the singing. One very “against-the-grain” approach that makes this film unique is that the director chose to find a way for the actors to sing live on the set. Normally in the film adaptation of a musical, all of the music is performed and sung in the studio, take after take, to get it “perfect”, and then that is applied to the shooting of the film, where the actors will lip-sync. This traditional approach, while making for good polish, it does so at the expense of acting. The film’s new approach, where the actors are acting and singing simultaneously, delivers much greater impact. It is vibrant, gritty, and more real, rather than contrived. Some have complained about the singing being pitchy, but I believe that this is a small price to pay for delivering the much heavier emotional impact.
So what about the characters? The singing? Well, lets just get the bad part out of the way. Really, there is only one truly bad part, and it has a very unfortunate, but frivolously necessary, excuse. I think we all can fathom that this world is full amazingly multitalented people, people who can act, sing, and dance very well. I think we can also fathom that the likelihood of a modern blockbuster-level Hollywood actor having this kind of talent is exceedingly low, and perhaps decreasing all the time. Still, there is this faux “need” to have big-name actors play the leads of Hollywood films. It is believed that without them, the film just won’t do well. No matter how often this has been disproven, it is still, and will remain, the norm. But let’s put this into perspective. Even on Broadway, this happens all the time. Usually the leads are played by those blessed with amazing singing voices, and who can do little else. Have you ever seen a lead on Broadway do unbelievably difficult and intricate dance steps? Not likely. However, the members of the company can do them, and act, and sing their little batooties off, but it goes unnoticed. Both Broadway and Hollywood are led by specialists, and supported by the truly multitalented.
Unfortunately, the worst of this film is truly horrific. I am speaking, of course, of Russell Crowe in this case. To paraphrase George Bernard Shaw (because I cannot seem to remember the actual quote), if I had to rate his singing ability on a musical scale, it would be:
Seriously, I understand the rationale of having a superstar in a leading role, but surely there are better choices out there. One that comes to mind is Patrick Stewart. At least that way we can say that Wolverine was being pursued by Captain Picard instead of Maximus or Lt. Bud White. Truly, Russell Crowe cannot sing. It is bad…. squirm-in-your-seat bad…. which is exactly what I did whenever he opened his mouth. On top of this, his portrayal of the character Javert was mediocre at best. However, I did notice that he got better as the film went on. Not much, but better. Better stick with pretty-boy tough guy roles, Mr. Crowe. Javert is too cruel and too musical for the likes of you. D…. the F goes to whoever cast him.
Okay, now that that’s out of the way…… The real shining star of this whole film is Anne Hathaway. Her portrayal of Fantine is about the best I can imagine, better than the stage show. And who knew she could sing like that!?!? So beautiful, so powerful was her delivery, that I was stricken with extreme sadness that I wasn’t going to see more of her, due to her character’s necessary death. Still, it was the perfect role for her to play. The fact that she is able to capture the complete depth of the character in such a small amount of time shows how truly talented she is. She was, in a word, perfect. A+
Now let’s talk lead. To say that Hugh Jackman can’t sing would be completely unfair, not to mention totally incorrect. He has chops… REAL chops… THEATRE chops… Yes, he came up through Australian theatre, and has had plenty of Broadway experience. He is a very good singer, as well as a fabulous actor. In the world of big-time Hollywood actors, he is definitely one of the most qualified to assume the role of Jean Valjean. He brings a lot of depth to the character, and he does a great job with a very difficult singing part. Are you waiting for the big “BUT”? Yes, unfortunately there is one, and it is so very hard for me to even raise the issue, because I really loved his performance in that he was as convincing a Jean Valjean as I can imagine. OK, here it is: BUT…… I think that musically, the part was just beyond his abilities. It is just simply too much for him. That is not to say that he wasted his time on a futile effort. That would also be unfair and wrong. His effort was as valiant as the prince. I think it was also evident in his performance that he knew the part was just a little too difficult. It comes out in his undying effort: He really is trying very hard to make it as good as he can. Sometimes he would have unnecessarily forced vibrato to add an air of reminding professionalism to something that is just out of his reach. It still sounds good, very good in fact. Unfortunately, no amount of forced vibrato can propel anyone beyond their own limits. Mr. Jackman, you gave a very solid, very convincing performance. I must give you a B+, but you get an A++ for effort.
Let’s take a little time to give out some Rookie of the Year awards. First up is Daniel Huttlestone. No, he is not some Flintstones second-cousin reject. He plays the part of the young boy, Gavroche. It is his first film, and he does a fantastic job being gritty, edgy, and intrusively in the faces of all the rich characters. He provides a character whose motivations you can get behind and support, all while singing infinitely better than Russel Crowe. Not bad for a kid. The other Rookie of the Year goes to our Éponine, Samantha Barks. Though she had already played the character as part of the 2010 35th Anniversary cast, this is her film debut. And what a debut! She does a stunning job! I must admit that I am a bit biased because I love the character so much. Most people are infatuated with her song “On My Own”, and rightfully so as it is beautiful and reveals her inner sanctum. She then becomes my favorite character, since she is completely transparent to us, the audience, but that all of that complexity is hidden from the other characters. However, the one that gets me every time is “A Little Fall of Rain”. That song wrecks me, and will probably lead me to my ultimate ruin. As soon as Éponine sacrifices herself to save Marius, I’m already thinking to myself, “OK… I’mnotgonnacryI’mnotgonnacryI’mnotgonnacryI’mnotgonnacryI’mnotgonnacry!” Futile chanting for a futile cause. As far as I’m concerned, Samantha nails it, revealing everything to her protector, and bringing tears to everyone’s eyes. Perhaps I just love the melody, or perhaps I just identify with the character. Either way…. A+
What treatment of Les Misérables would be complete without a little comic relief? Those who have seen the stage show know what I mean because there is a LOT of it. Thénardier and his wife, Madame Thénardier, provide us with the quirky, unscrupulous, but humorous ways of the French underworld. In the stage show, the overly exaggerated overplaying of these characters is difficult to avoid, given the medium. The emotion on stage must be shown through gestures and overacting in order to reach the people in the back row. To imagine a much more introverted, but equally funny, pair of Thénardiers seems almost impossible. That is where Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter come in. To overact these parts on film would be artistic suicide! Isn’t it interesting that they would cast the current reigning champion of overacting, Borat himself, to play one of these parts? However, and to their credit, both Sacha and Helena manage to bring much subdued and welcome complexity to the characters. I can’t help but think that Helena’s stage-to-film chops ruled this particular roost, and that Cohen took a few cues. I did love them both in Sweeney Todd, but since Cohen’s role was markedly smaller, it is definitely nice to see him stepping it up here. Helena Bonham Carter is just as brilliant as ever, and they both seem to bring some real motivation, besides making the audience laugh, to their characters. If you’re looking for the usual crazily loud and outlandish husband and wife pair, you won’t find it here. Crazy, yes. Loud and obnoxious, not so much. Hilarious? Of course. A
Just a quick side note, does anyone know why Madame Thénardier looks almost exactly like Mrs. Lovett? I don’t mean that they are played by the same actress, but the characters look very similar. And, what’s with Helena Bonham Carter and her sunglasses? I know that France was and is the center of the world for fashion, but did they have sunglasses during the French Revolution? Puzzling…
All I can say about Cosette and Marius is that they were well-acted and sung. Amanda Seyfried and Eddie Redmayne did these two fairly shallow characters decent justice. The singing was exceptionally nice without sounding too innocent and mousy, which is often the case with these two. The medium of film helps to add some depth here, but not a lot. I’ve always found it strange that in a story with such deep themes there would be a shallow love at first sight. Still, it contributes well.
This brings me to one of my favorite parts of the film, the men’s chorus. This particular men’s chorus is made up of young revolutionaries from the university, led by Enjolras, played by Aaron Tevit. I can’t seem to find any clever words for their performance, so I will make it plain: They sound fabulous! Their singing of “Red and Black” is absolutely heavenly, so powerful that it made me want to stand up on my chair and sing along. Guys, it will get your Y chromosome stirring; ladies, well… you know. A+
Viewers will be happy to know that the budget of this movie was big enough to have separately cast choruses for every scene with extras. This is where the talent of our world really shines. These people are all multitalented in ways that none of the lead players could be, given their hard-earned specialization. Every small-part soloist is very good, and some are better than the leads. I goes without saying (though I’ll say it anyway) that they are all better than Russell Crowe. I am very happy to know that talent like this is not being overlooked. Shine on, extras!
So, there you have it, a few short thoughts on Les Misérables. I really think that the film adaptation has a lot to offer everyone, even die-hard Broadway fans. There are times when the stage show can feel like it is running away from you because your distance from the stage separates you from the action. This film tightens all of that up and makes it much more accessible for the average viewer. It does so in a way that should please even the most blind lover of the awful (in my opinion) 1987 Original Broadway Cast Recording to the most discerning hater of all the recordings. But oh, Russell Crowe…. that is one difficult blemish to remove from the mind.