My first big-screen film viewing for 2013 was Tom Hooper’s film adaptation of Les Misérables. No, I did not go see this on Christmas Day, much to the chagrin of my husband. As much as I love movies, Christmas with the family is much more important. So, after a couple of weeks of relaxed schedules and quality hibernating, it was off to the movies!
[probably spoilers in here somewhere, for those of you who don’t know the story of Les Mis — but why don’t you??]
I’d like to preface my review by giving you a little background on my experiences with film and theater and the combination of the two. I’ve been involved in community theater since I was ten years old, and have had a hand in nearly every aspect of stage production. I haven’t worked on Les Mis specifically, but I have seen it on stage a couple of times. Contrast that with my husband, who has seen it many, many times and knows probably every word and note by heart. I have also seen numerous stage shows on film or television, from PBS’ opera series on tv to a very nice production of Company with Patti LuPone and Neil Patrick Harris done “in concert” with minimal choreography, which I had the pleasure of experiencing just last year at our local art theater. So when I first heard about Les Mis coming to film, I could envision many possible ways this project could go.
Like many other fans, I had seen the trailers and the videos, so I knew going in that Anne Hathaway wasn’t going to butcher “I Dreamed A Dream”. And I was already judging Russell Crowe pretty hard. Reviews from my friends ran the gamut from “wonderful” to “eh” but nothing really horrid, thankfully. As we walked into the theater, my husband confided that he had set his expectations kind of low, but for him, that was fair. Otherwise he’d have had such unrealistically high expectations that God Himself probably couldn’t have met them.
As the lights went down and the film began, I noticed two things at once: the orchestral music wasn’t quite as “large” as I expected, particularly for the opening number (wondering now if that was partially a volume setting at the theater?); however, the film’s visual presence was amazingly huge. Not that I was expecting a film of a stage play, but I had hoped that giving Les Mis the cinematic treatment would afford some opportunities that were at the very least cost-prohibitive to accomplish on stage, if not downright impossible. Every one of those opportunities was taken, and then some–starting right at the downbeat, with our beleaguered hero and company suffering to drag a massive ship into port in the pouring rain. Visually, the film started out in a grand, sweeping way, and I was already hooked. (I also got a bit of a chuckle out of the choreographed hands as all the men rhythmically grabbed and pulled the ropes together in time. But, that’s just me.) The first exchange between Jean Valjean and Javert was…okay. Hugh Jackman was good, and I was trying not to judge Russell Crowe.
My first real teary-eyed moment was Valjean’s encounter with the bishop, played by Colm Wilkinson who was the original Jean Valjean in London and on Broadway. It’s such a poignant moment, and Wilkinson delivers his song perfectly. I was a little annoyed that he used the word “saved” versus “bought” in regards to Valjean’s soul, but I guess that was to avoid the idea that Valjean was now somehow beholden to the bishop. Forgiven. Let’s move on.
During “What Have I Done?” we got our first look at how Hooper chose to showcase individual solos, which was an extreme close-up, talking-heads style shot. In that particular scene, Jackman’s unflinching gaze toward the audience was rather lengthy, to the point of being unsettling, and I found myself wishing the camera would cut away once in a while. I got the payoff at the end though, in the final long shot of Valjean storming out of the sanctuary, tearing up his letters, and throwing them to the winds. Such a great sweeping visual transition into the streets of Paris. It was truly breathtaking, and something that could only be accomplished on film.
My favorite performer in this film, hands down, was Anne Hathaway. When we got to “I Dreamed A Dream”, I was already more comfortable with the close-up solo shot, and the numerous emotions she brought to that song were incredible to watch and experience. Some interpretations of Fantine are more sad, more dejected; Hathaway’s Fantine is palpably angry and railing against the hand Fate had dealt her. Her line “but he was gone when autumn came” yielded such an expression on her face and in her voice that I find it rather indescribable. And later on, when Cosette appeared to Fantine at her hospital bedside, it was all I could do not to openly break down sobbing. I honestly can’t remember when I’ve cried so hard while watching a movie–not just a couple of tears, but big, hitching sobs that were very difficult to keep quiet in a theater. I’m so glad I was watching this in the dark!
What can I say about Russell Crowe? I did have certain expectations for Javert, and sadly, Crowe did not meet those expectations. But what I can say for him is this: it’s obvious (at least to me) that he worked terribly hard to perform this role correctly. I will give him that. Unfortunately, I could tell that he was still working during the filming to perform this correctly. And his performance was…accurate. As in, the notes were right, the rhythms were right, and the words were right. It was a technically correct performance. But he wasn’t acting through it, not like his fellow actors. His face and his eyes were perpetually devoid of expression, and there were no musical nuances to indicate that he understood the content of what he was singing. Presuming that Crowe didn’t come into this project with much of a musical theater background, what he did was a terrific accomplishment. I just wish that they could have cast someone else who could have not only mastered the music, but the character as well.
The Thénardiers’ inn was a darker place than I was expecting. I was looking for a bit of comic relief in “Master of the House”, particularly since I knew Helena Bonham-Carter was playing Madame Thénardier. In fact, in retrospect, I kind of wish Tim Burton could have assisted on those scenes. I was hoping for a bit of giddy madness, but instead the Thénardiers were more cold and calculating, and you understood immediately that the thievery in which they were engaging was simply what needed to be done in order to survive. I think the film missed some good comedic opportunities here, which is the only really negative thing I have to say about the film as a whole.
The younger members of the cast were really wonderful. The children–young Cosette and Gavroche–had the benefit of looking the part as well as being able to sing and act convincingly, and I liked that young Cosette had a bit more screen time than she would have had on stage. (However, the extra song with her and Valjean in the carriage fleeing the Thénardiers really stuck out as out of place.) Gavroche was very endearing, which gave an extra punch to his death scene. Marius and the other students sang beautifully–my gosh, I do love men singing in harmony, so “Red and Black” was very enjoyable for me. If I had to endure the discomfort of Jean Valjean’s close-up during “What Have I Done?” so as to prepare me for Marius’ “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables”, then it was well worth it. Marius’ pain and anguish was all over his face, as well as in his voice, and his solo was terribly, terribly beautiful.
One of the accomplishments of this film was that we could see more clearly such a range of emotions in all of the characters. We were afforded the closer view, and so felt much more included in the story. We also got a better perspective of many nuances of character, even from the supporting cast such as the ladies in the shop who wouldn’t quite meet the eyes of the foreman when they went to him about Fantine. I was particularly impressed at the actors who cried during their songs–Jackman, Hathaway, Samantha Barks (Eponine), Eddie Redmayne (Marius). It’s one thing to be able to cry on cue, but it’s another to hold that intensity of emotion during a five-minute long scene with music where the camera doesn’t cut away to give the actor another shot at the tears. The emotions felt raw, and real, all throughout the movie.
One complaint I heard from a couple of my friends was that the orchestrations were thinner than in the stage version. (It should be noted that these friends are very well-acquainted with the intricacies of the score, so it doesn’t surprise me that they were bothered by this.) Other than a few very large visual moments, where I too thought there should have been more music, or at least more complex music, I myself can see why they went with a smaller score. There were so many moments in this story that translated to truly intimate interactions, and the filmmakers accordingly went with a more intimate setting. A fuller, more lush orchestral score would have been out of place. Again, it’s taking proper advantage of the medium at hand.
Overall, I really, really enjoyed this version of Les Misérables. Not only did it prove faithful to the book and music (in feel and respect, if not in a couple of small details), but it also provided a beautiful cinematic canvas for some exceptional storytelling. I came away from it with a deeper understanding of the story, as well as a renewed appreciation of the score. No, it is not exactly like the stage version, nor should it be. In some ways–in my opinion, at least–it’s better.