If I’m going to be honest with all of you nice people (and when aren’t I?) I don’t quite know how I feel about Les Misérables, the movie musical adaptation of the stage play based on the work by Victor Hugo. Don’t get me wrong, I know how I feel about certain parts of the movie, but as a whole, I’m not sure if I actually liked it or if I’m trying too hard to like it out of loyalty to one of my favorite musicals. Allow me to explain:
Les Misérables was the first musical I ever saw on stage at the 5th Avenue Theater in Seattle. My mother, sister and I went because we’d fallen in love with the musical via the PBS 10th Anniversary Dream Cast production that was on near constant rotation at the time. So, when the show came our way, we went to see it and it’s the only musical, to this day, that I’ve seen multiple times. I absolutely LOVE this musical. Stage play notwithstanding, I still look up clips from the 10th Anniversary special on YouTube when the fancy strikes me because, when I hear those songs, those are the voices in my head…other than the usual ones that occupy the space. And because I loved it so much, I even attempted to read the book when I was a teenager. Not the most enjoyable thing to read, obviously, but still worth while. My point is that I’m a devoted fan, so when I saw the first rumblings of an actual adaptation of the musical, I was intrigued. Added to that the gimmick of the actors live singing instead of a pre-recorded soundtrack and I was pretty much guaranteed to see it.
For those who are unfamiliar with the plot, here’s a nutshell summary: Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman), or Prisoner #24601, is released after 19 years spent in prison for stealing a loaf of bread. In order to remake himself as a new man, thanks to the kindly efforts of a priest and some silver dinnerware, he breaks his parole and is doggedly pursued by Inspector Javert (Russell Crowe). As the mayor of a small town and factory owner, Valjean unknowingly allows Fantine (Anne Hathaway) to be thrown out on the street where she struggles to earn money to support her daughter, Cosette, who’s under the care of the Thénardiers (Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter). Finding a sick Fantine working as a prostitute, Valjean offers to care for Cosette before she dies at around the same time as Javert reveals that another man may go to prison because they believe him to be Valjean. Deciding to do the right thing and reveal himself, Valjean takes Cosette to Paris and they manage to hide for nine years until an adult Cosette (Amanda Seyfried) falls for Marius (Eddie Redmayne) a student revolutionary during the June Rebellion of 1832. All paths cross this way and that as the rebellion brings to light the themes of morality, forgiveness, and hope that flow through the entire narrative.
That is the least amount I can say about the plot. If you want to know the whole damn thing, look it up. So why am I on the fence about this? Well, there are definitely good things and bad things about this adaptation. I think I’ll start with the good because I don’t want you to think that I’m entirely harshing on this. That will come later. What’s good about Les Miz? The acting and singing, for the most part. The best thing you can say about the whole live singing bit is that you really get to see the emotions of the actors play out as they sing. Most notable are Hugh Jackman during “Valjean’s Soliloquy/What Have I Done?”, Anne Hathaway’s stunning “I Dreamed a Dream”, and Eddie Redmayne’s heartbreaking “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables.” These three songs showcase the powerfully raw performances of the actors that might not have occurred had they just been lip-syncing. Director Tom Hooper also makes the bold choice of keeping the camera squarely on the actors, with very few cuts, so that you’re forced to see those emotions. There are also surprising performances from Samantha Barks as Eponine and Aaron Tveit as Enjorlas, the only two Broadway performers in the cast other than Jackman. There are some amazing set pieces as well. The opening shot of the prisoners pulling a frigate into the shipyard is massive and there are plenty of sweeping shots of Paris that make the city look vibrant, yet don’t shy away from the grit and grime.
Now we come to the bad. In a lot of ways, what’s bad about the musical is the same as what’s good. Russell Crowe is, by far, the weakest singer and actor in this entire film, which is disappointing given the importance of his role. Javert is a man of rigid morals incapable of believing that a man like Jean Valjean can be anything more than a thief. His turn at the end is supposed to be tragic and yet there’s hardly any emotion to be found on Crowe’s face. It’s like he was too worried about getting the lyrics right and not the acting, which made both suffer enormously. Also, the Thénardiers aren’t that great either. The big comedic song “Master of the House” just doesn’t gel with Cohen and Carter half-assedly singing their way through what could have been a piece from Sweeny Todd. In fact, one of the biggest problems about having a cast of singers and “non-singers” is that the songs feel disconnected from the score. The polished voices of Broadway might have benefited this movie, giving it a grandiosity that’s often missing.
Remember how I said there were a lot of huge set pieces? Despite that this film feels very claustrophobic with Hooper’s choice to keep the camera so tightly zoomed in on the actors that we as an audience never really get a chance to breathe or take in the setting. Would it kill you to back off Hugh Jackman while he’s pacing in the church? It’s like Hooper got so caught up in the gimmick that he forgot he was filming a pretty epic musical. As a result, nothing about this feels epic. Even the barricade where the students hold their ground against the Parisian guard feels small. Pacing wise…well, there really isn’t any except for the constant need to get from one song to the next. Fantine’s dead? Cut to Cosette NOW! No time to mourn, we need to hear “Castle on a Cloud!” I understand that there are a lot of songs in this musical, and kudos to Hooper for keeping most of them in the movie, but we get barely any time to really enjoy them before moving on to the next. As much as I’m a Les Miz ”purist”, maybe a few more songs should’ve been cut.
I guess the best question you could ask is, “Should I see this?” If you’re not a fan of musicals or Les Misérables, probably not. But if you are, I’d say see it, but don’t expect too much. It has its moments, but there are a lot of problems throughout. Is it the best we’re ever gonna get? For now, yes, but I think we could do better.