Oh, Les Misérables. Let me be upfront about my bias: I love this musical. The music, the story, the characters, the lessons learned—there’s not really a bad spot to be found. A few months ago, I even confessed that in this particular instance, live theatre could even trump my beloved television as the preferred medium.
So, what about the movie? Well, that’s what we’re here to find out, right? But first, a short primer for those who may not be familiar with the work.
The story comes from Victor Hugo’s classic novel, and tells the story of Jean Valjean, a convict sent to prison for stealing bread to feed his starving family. As the story begins, he’s being paroled, but in 19th century France, parole is a life-long cross to bear, just about guaranteed to cause recidivism. So it is that Valjean soon feels desperate enough to steal from a priest, hoping to give himself a head start. But he’s caught (those constables are everywhere, it seems), and almost certainly headed back to the pen. But the priest backs up his story and has him freed, and even allows him to keep the stolen silver. He’s bought Valjean’s soul for God.
Thus begins the story of Valjean’s redemption, as he determines to keep his promise to the old priest. The rest of the story picks up years later, and finds Valjean a factory owner, mayor, and all around good guy. But he’s still a wanted man, hunted by Inspector Javert, and living with that constant fear. Through a heartbreaking series of events, one of his factory workers dies and leaves Valjean to care for her young daughter. This is another promise he’s determined to keep. The final stage of the story is again many years later; the daughter, Cosette, is now a young woman on the verge of love, Valjean is older and wiser, but still in hiding, and France is brimming with revolution.
That’s the story; now let’s look at the film. First, let me be clear: this is a musical film. I know that seems pretty obvious, but I don’t mean the kind of musical where there’s your regular story acting going on and every fifteen minutes or so someone decides to break into song, then get back to their regular self. No, this film is music, start to finish. I didn’t count them, but I’m going to guess there are maybe a couple dozen spoken words in the entire thing, and it runs over two and a half hours. If you don’t like a lot of singing, this is not the film for you. (This would be the reason I treated myself to a special matinee showing one weekday and spared my husband, since I’ve already subjected him to the live performance three different times.) And, speaking of the live version, I will try to keep this primarily focused on the film, but there’s simply no way for me not to compare the two mediums.
So let’s start with the cast. Valjean is brought to life by Hugh Jackman, who has been nominated for an Academy Award, and just last night took home the Golden Globe for his role. He’s certainly a talented man; heck, I can even remember enjoying a Tony Award broadcast because of him, and I am totally out of the loop of current Broadway hits. That being said, I’ll just get it out of the way and say that if there’s a weak link in the cast, musically speaking, he’s it. And, given that he’s the star, that’s kind of a downer. On the other hand, even if there has to be a weakest link, that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s really all that weak, and I think that’s the case here. From strictly an acting perspective, he does a great job; you’ll feel his anguish, know his heart, pray for him to prevail. And the man can sing; I don’t mean to imply he can’t. But there are times his voice sounds . . . tinny might be the best way to describe it. It’s not weak, far from it. And it’s not that the music is outside his range. But from time to time, something doesn’t sound quite right. It’s not enough to be unpleasant, but I found myself wishing for something a little more.
Perhaps this is the time to comment on the filmmaking process in this particular movie. Unlike a typical musical, where the soundtrack would be recorded (and perfected) in a studio somewhere and then the actors lip sync to the songs as they film, these songs were filmed live. hmm. Filmed live. Does that make sense? What I mean is, the actors actually sang as they were filming each of their scenes. In terms of comparing film to theatre, I think that approach gave the closest approximation of seeing a live performance that you could hope to get in a movie. I also think it means the songs have to be pretty darn close to perfect, because with state of the art technology in both film making and showing, there isn’t a lot of forgiveness. In that way, I think maybe the stage performers have a slight advantage, because no matter how great a space they’re performing in, it’s not being broadcast in THX surround sound. You can watch a little bit about the filming here.
Anyway, I think maybe that’s where Jackman suffers, or perhaps it really is in comparison. The one place I really found his performance lacking was in Valjean’s signature song, “Bring Him Home”. But maybe it’s just me. Listen to Jackman, and stage star Colm Wilkinson, and you be the judge.
Russell Crowe is the ever vigilant Javert, and while I can’t say I’m exactly a huge fan, I think he does a good job. I’ve heard some bad things about his singing in the movie—even one of his costars poked a little fun at the Golden Globes—but I think he holds his own. Granted, it’s a role with only a couple of major solos, and if it were much more than that, he might’ve run into trouble, but I say he’s the right person for the job. He’s very believably self-righteous and certain, and his moment of transformation is worth seeing.
Anne Hathaway portrays Fantine, the ill-fated factory worker who changed Valjean’s life when she entrusted Cosette to his care, and all I can say about her is that she impresses mightily. She’s got maybe a handful of scenes and only a couple of songs, and still manages to have the most emotional moment of the film. You wouldn’t really want to leave after “I Dreamed a Dream”, but if you did, at least you’d be leaving on a really high note. She also picked up a Golden Globe last night, and is nominated for an Academy. I have to say, I think her chances at the Oscar are better than Jackman’s, not necessarily because she’s that much better, but because at the Golden Globes, there were two categories for leading actors: drama and comedy/musical. At the Academy Awards, Jackman has to go head to head with the dramatic winner, Daniel Day Lewis, as well as three other nominees.
I found the rest of the cast to be uniformly solid. Cosette is played by Amanda Seyfried. I’d put this in the supporting role category, even though she’s half of the major love story. Even so, we don’t really get to know the character all that well. We meet her as a child, when she’s rescued by Valjean, and when we see her again, she’s grown and falling in love with Marius. There’s really not much time to find out a lot about who she is.
Marius is part of the group of young men planning a revolution, trying to bring equality and social justice to his country. He’s played by Brit Eddie Redmayne, who’s completely believable as the sincere activist who finds love just as he and his group finalize an uprising that’s almost destined to lead them to their deaths. He and Cosette share the much talked about love at first sight. My only quibble with this casting is that while he’s easily believable as a rich young boy (as one of the songs says) out of his element, he doesn’t look like someone a pretty young girl would get all ga-ga over across a crowded square. I mean, he’s cute in a freckle-faced way, but not your typical dashing young male. A minor detail.
The other characters we meet are Eponine (Samantha Barks), who is also in love with Marius (she’s my personal favorite, btw); Eponine’s parents, the Thénardiers (Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter), who offer up the comic relief of the movie, though they also come across much ickier than they typically do on stage; the revolutionary leader Enjolras, (Evan Tveit, who’s going to be in a new USA Network program that I’m looking forward to, Graceland), who is absolutely a true believer; and, Gavroche (Daniel Huttlestone), the plucky, scene-stealing street urchin who is actually Eponine’s brother, though I don’t think we ever really know that, in either the movie or the play. It’s not quite a literal “cast of thousands”, but IMDB lists a couple of hundred credited roles, with another fifty or so uncredited. There are a lot of people making this music come to life.
Before wrapping up, I’d like to offer one last comparison to film and stage, and that’s the grand scale that film allows. The movie is as visually attractive as it can be, considering we spend a lot of time in the poor streets of France rather than on a lovely sunny beach somewhere. It’s sweeping and dramatic, and there are a few times it brings an intensity to the story you could never hope to achieve on stage—Javert’s final song being the best example. However, there are also times I think the film suffers from a lack of intimacy that the stage brings. The aforementioned “Bring Him Home” is one of those moments; it’s somehow not quite as soulful, and I think maybe it’s because it feels bigger. The worst, for me, though, is “One Day More”. On stage, it’s the Act One finale, so it feels big and bold as the music swells and the cast comes together, but really, it’s cramped and frenetic and just a little bit desperate, as each of the characters make ready for what they know will be a huge turning point in their lives. With everyone sharing one stage, putting the pieces together, the emotions are impossible to ignore. But on film, with the cuts between scenes and characters, something is lost, and that makes me just a little bit sad.
A London stage production of “One Day More”.
All right, so let’s just cut to the chase, before this post runs as long as the movie itself. The shortcomings of the film are more magnified by comparison to live performances than they are when standing on their own. As mentioned, I have seen the play several times, and I’ve had the CDs of the original Broadway cast in my car for years as stand-by music, so every little difference is glaring; the same would probably be true even if I were to see another live show now. Still, it’s an excellent movie, with a strong cast telling a timeless story of love and redemption. I might always prefer a stage production, but I would gladly spend another three hours of my life watching this movie again, maybe even another six. If you haven’t seen it, and if you love musicals, I’d definitely put this one on your watch list.
Have you seen the movie? If so, what did you think? If not, do you plan to?
A really nice trailer for the film.
All images ©Universal Studios.