I would venture to say most American movie-goers have never had the opportunity to see a Broadway musical. Why? Opportunity, desire, you choose. And because musicals are a relative scarcity in the multiplex these days, people aren’t used to live action musicals of any kind. Many are probably unaware there are different kinds of musicals. “Chicago”, “The Producers”, “Mamma Mia” and “Moulin Rouge” are the most common form of musicals. Actors speak dialogue and the story moves forward as most films do, but they frequently stop and break out into a song and dance, delivering a musical number that should help move the story forward. But there are also ‘operatic musicals’, productions in which virtually every word is sung and the musical numbers are still there, but less defined. “Phantom of the Opera” and “Les Miserables” are examples of this type of musical.
I know a lot of people who would rather have their toenails pulled out with pliers than to sit through a movie musical. These same people detest ‘operatic musicals’ because they never get a break from the music and singing.
If you are one of these people, you will not like “Les Mis”. But if a musical is made well, it can really transport you, enveloping all of your senses. And “Les Mis” is made very well; a highly emotional, very satisfying adaptation of one of the most successful, longest running musicals in history.
The story is very familiar. Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman, calling on his Broadway skills) is imprisoned for stealing bread to feed a sick family member. Many years later, he is released on probation by Javert (Russell Crowe) who promises to keep an eye on the criminal, watching for any mistake, ready to jail him in an instant. Flash forward a few years and Valjean is now living under another identity as the owner of a factory making rosary beads. A successful man, he is surprised when Javert shows up in the small town. Javert seems to recognize Valjean, but can’t place him. Nervous, Valjean ignores the pleas of Fantine (Anne Hathaway), one of the factory workers trying to evade the lecherous foreman. Fantine is fired and falls of hard times, very hard times. Eventually Valjean realizes what has happened and pledges to her that he will find her daughter and care for her. Javert also realizes who Valjean is and is hot on his heels. Valjean finds Fantine’s daughter, Cosette in the care of the Thenardiers (Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter), dubious inn-keepers constantly looking for more money. Flash forward a few years and Valjean and Cosette (Amanda Seyfried) are back in Paris when Marius (Eddie Redmayne) spots the young lady and instantly falls in love. Marius is a very involved in the student movement and will soon help start the French Revolution. Valjean, Javert and Cosette will all become involved in the event that will change the history of France.
Directed by Tom Hooper (“The King’s Speech”), “Les Mis” is a passionate, rousing, extremely emotional and ultimately uneven experience. It is highly satisfying, but because so much of the film is so good, the parts that aren’t are even more egregious and annoying.
Hugh Jackman has been spending a lot of time performing on Broadway, shifting back and forth between stage and screen. He clearly has the chops to handle a musical and does a great job as Prisoner 24601. He goes through a lot, experiences a lot and changes a lot throughout the course of the story. This may be one of the biggest understatements ever, but to go into too much detail would spoil some of the surprise for people unfamiliar with the story. Let’s just say he faces many obstacles and challenges.
But as Valjean climbs each mountain and faces each challenge, you always get a feeling for his inner conscience. Jackman subtly shows us that even when Valjean is doing something wrong, he is at great pains when doing it. And he always tries to do something to compensate for the past error.
Russell Crowe is another matter entirely. He doesn’t have the skill or chops to carry the musical part of his role as Javert, the extremely tenacious gendarme. Everything he sings sounds the same which is problematic because he has to show us the emotions his character is living through. He pretty much glares at people throughout the film, rarely giving us insight into his character.
Crowe deserves a lot of credit for going out of his comfort zone, but the filmmakers should have stayed away from the star’s pull and sought out a performer who could do the role justice.
Remember when Anne Hathaway and James Franco hosted the Oscars? There seemed to be two general thoughts about their work; 1. James Franco looked uncomfortable and uneasy throughout most of the show and 2. Surprise that Anne Hathaway could sing. Her performance as Fantine, the single mother working in a factory to earn money for her child, erases the question mark and any doubt. Anne Hathaway CAN sing.
I have only seen the musical performed live once and didn’t remember that her big moment came so early in the story, but the moment she appears on screen, get your hankies out. Her role is tragic and moving and as she is singing “I Dream a Dream”, you can see the pain and emotion in her face and hear it in every word she utters. Her character’s life ultimately steers Jean Valjean towards his destiny, so it makes sense and needs to happen pretty early to drive the rest of the story.
Amanda Seyfried (who was also in “Mamma Mia”), Eddie Redmayne, who plays her true love, Samantha Banks who plays Eponine and Aaron Tveit who plays Enjorlas are all good, but when you consider the power of Hathaway’s performance and the bravado of Jackman’s, these younger actors pale in comparison. They all play a part in sparking the French Revolution, which closes the film.
Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter play the Thernadiers, shady inn-keepers who seem included to provide a bit of comic relief. Normally, this type of thing wouldn’t work very well, but their big song “Master of the House” is one of the most memorable and helps to compensate for the obvious nature of their characters.
Watching a film musical is a very different thing from watching the same musical performed on stage. It should be a different thing. When you are watching a play, you are looking at the entire stage and as characters move around, your attention is directed to them. As they move back and forth, your eye follows them. Sometimes, you may be watching a scene between two characters at opposite sides of the stage. But the stage is always there and your eye is always moving. When you watch a filmed version of the same play, the filmmakers direct your attention to the focused performer with camera movement, editing, transitions and more. Your eye will process less because the filmmakers have already done this for you. Naturally, watching a live play is to a movie what reading a book is to watching a film adaptation of that book. When you read a book, your mind processes a lot of information and paints pictures for you, guiding you through the story. Sometimes, reading a scary story is a lot more effective than watching a horror story because the images your mind conjures are a lot scarier (and real to you) than what the filmmakers can come up with. Watching a live play is a very different thing because you have to decide where to look, what to concentrate on. You can also look at the whole picture.
In “Les Miserables”, Tom Hooper gives us an intimate view of the story. “Les Mis” isn’t known for great choreography anyway, so Hooper smartly concentrates on the actors as they perform.
He has also gone one step further; the actors sing live throughout the film. In most musicals, the singers record the songs in a studio and then perform the roles to a playback of the song. Watching “Les Mis” is a very different experience. You can see the words coming out of the actor’s mouths, feel their power, and it also makes the performances more intimate and meaningful.
“Les Miserables” is an emotional, moving experience. And a fitting adaptation of one of the longest running musicals in history. It has some problems, but all-in-all, this is one of the most satisfying films of the year.