Need a Les Mis: The Movie drinking game? Drink every time a character sheds one tear. You’ll be dead of alcohol poisoning before the first dead revolutionary. The intimacy, close-ups, and emotion of Les Misérables are well summed up in those copious single tears.
The arrival of Les Misérables to the big screen was met with eager anticipation and a great deal of nervousness by her die hard fans. Previous “stage to screen” adaptations range from the good (Chicago, The Phantom of the Opera) to decent (Hairspray, Rent) to lousy (The Producers) to the complicated (Sweeney Todd). How would they ruin this amazing show in the conversion to a Hollywood movie? For those less familiar or not at all familiar with the musical, would they be drawn in to see it and would it make any sense?
Well, they didn’t ruin Les Misérables. If you loved it before, you are likely enjoyed most of it. If you disliked it or musicals in general, this will make it worse. If you never really knew it, and like musicals, you’re probably okay.
So here’s a quick review of different aspects of the film.
Les Misérables is a exciting, moving movie with tremendous music and a great cast. While not the best film of the year, it holds its own as an event – incredible sets, famous actors, soaring songs, a love story, lots of death, war, and powerful issues of freedom and rebellion. Sort of like what Lincoln would have been if there had been songs, a love story, more battles, and a faster pace. Highly recommended.
I previously speculated on the music that would be used in the film. I was mostly right. While nearly ever song from the original appeared in some form it was often halved (ex. “Castles on a Cloud”) or even reduced to one spoken line (ex. “Dog Eats Dog” – which is no loss).
All of my other speculations were also pretty much on the money. I had wondered if “A Little Fall of Rain” would be cut, but it was simply shortened.
The new song written for the screen, and therefore for Oscar consideration, “Suddenly,” was forgettable and didn’t sound like a Les Mis song at all. But it got a nomination.
The insistence on the close-up (see “Director” below) deflated the energy found in many of the group songs, most notably the loss of crowd shots in “One Day More.”
As I listened to one of the soundtracks from a theater production, I realized the power and quality of the voices were so strong, the film cast could never come close. The medium is different. In the theater, you have to sing so the whole theater can take it in – singing to balcony, as it were. In the movies, we all have good seats and are right up close. The music can be much more intimate, personal, and emotional. The movie definitely celebrated that difference.
I am not likely to listen to the movie soundtrack the way I am uplifted by the theater versions. The movie versions work in the movie, but not as isolated voices.
Hugh Jackman, Valjean – I adore Hugh Jackman in any form. I was concerned he didn’t have the vocal range for this challenging part, but I was delighted he hit some great high notes as he delivered an emotionally and physically powerful performance. He absolutely deserves his nomination for Best Actor Oscar along with the likes of Daniel Day-Lewis and Joaquin Phoenix. A true tour de force.
Russell Crowe, Javert – There was a moment in the movie when Javert, caught as a spy, sings “Shoot me now or shoot me later…”. It is full of intensity and menace. But that’s the only moment. Otherwise, Crowe sings as if he is doing a Barry Manilow cover on Easy Listening karaoke night. A movie is often carried by the villain. Javert is a great villain. Crowe is bland Javert.
Anne Hathaway, Fantine – She had so much build up, the backlash was inevitable. But it turns out she nailed it and earned all the praise offered. She captured the movie in every frame she was in and she’ll be holding an Academy Award come February for it.
Amanda Seyfried, Cosette – To me, she was bland and forgettable. She is like a pretty songbird – sounds pleasant at first, but ultimately a little annoying and no one really loves the songbird.
Eddie Redmayne, Marius – Redmayne carried the role well and “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables” was beautiful. But he’s just so cute with the freckles it is hard to take him that seriously.
Samantha Banks, Eponine – Coming from the West End production, Les Mis fans were already big advocates of this young woman. She gave a quieter and less powerful performance here, but did it beautifully. I felt bad that she had rain dumped on her in two of her big songs – the difference between a stage (fake) and a screen (soaking wet) version.
Sacha Baron Cohen, Thénardier– I knew he’d carry the music and acting off. I was surprised I wish he’d been a little more off-the-wall.
Helena Bonham Carter, Madame Thénardier – Unlike Sweeney Todd, Bonham Carter was totally up to both the singing and the comedy of her part and added the comic relief perfectly.
Now for some lesser known actors who deserve recognition:
Aaron Tveit, Enjornas (the leader of the rebellion) – Having see Tveit on Broadway in Catch Me If You Can, I knew he could sing, act, and was easy on the eyes. In a part that sings a lot, but lacks any background, he was outstanding. His strong, handsome presence was even stronger compared to Redmayne who is a bit of a Muppet in looks and voice.
Daniel Huttlestone, Gavroche (the kid) – I have always favored the part of Gavroche. In the theater, his songs are typical cut down and he is mostly seen on somebody’s shoulders in group shots. Here, his songs were cut further, but additional material was written onto another song to guide exposition. The kid’s bright smile was captivating – he had the charisma and charm that Seyfried lacked. The film elevated his role because he received regular cutaway shots and stole your heart each time.
Colm Wilkenson, The Bishop – In a small role, Wilkenson is a pleasure for all Les Misérables fans. He is the actor who originated the part of Valjean on the stage. His “Bring Him Home” is always breathtaking (while Jackman’s is not – he lacks the vocal range). It was a classy move to give him this small role in the film.
The Sets and Costumes
The costumes were authentic looking. And they kept the iconic hats for Javert and Eponine. The make-up made everyone look, except Amanda Seyfried, look poor and grimy. I noticed a lot of yellowed teeth on poor characters.
The sets varied. Some looked very CGI as did many of the big crowd scenes. But others felt genuine, even though much of the film was shot in England, not France.
Tom Hooper has made a splash quickly in his career. His first major film, The King’s Speech, won best picture and director Oscars (beating the critics’ darling, The Social Network). Now, he has directed an impossible musical and, as has been widely discussed, used “Live Singing” – The actors actually sang their songs during filming instead of lip synching to pre-recorded tracks. (Which, by the way, isn’t new at all – but they never seem to shut up about it in every interview and promo)
The songs are therefore more intimate in their delivery. Hooper shows us this by going to tight close-ups on the actors for long takes during any solo. During every solo. No matter the singing, it felt like every single solo was shot identically: tight on the face for at least a minute of song – or much more – with no cuts; long enough to see the singer cry at least one tear. This is the movie of everyone shedding one tear. Some variety would have been nice. It is not a shocker he didn’t get the Oscar nomination.
Anyone singing along in their head noticed that in addition to cutting down many songs, there were numerous line changes, alterations, adjustments, and some additional verses added. While some seemed odd, for the most part, there was an obvious attempt to help tell the story better. Characters’ motivations were better identified (such as why Valjean doesn’t help Fantine at first). Details from the Victor Hugo novel were restored including Marius’ background (although barely) that were welcome.
Having seen it twice, I think it is a great job of translating the musical to the screen. But I will still favor the soundtracks and seeing the show on stage to this musical for the more powerful musical performances and the greater intensity of the stage.