I had a dream Les Miz would be … so much better than the movie it is.
Sorry to be a buzzkill, but despite all the hype that would lead you to believe the big-screen adaptation of the beloved musical Les Misérables is the best thing since sliced bread, the movie left me feeling lukewarm.
And I don’t say that lightly. Like so many others who grew up in New York, Les Misérables played a significant role during my formative years. I first saw it in 1987, in London, on a trip with my grandparents. I also saw the show on Broadway, and I heard songs like “On My Own” over and over in talent shows at summer camp and in school, and at other performances where young girls got up to sing.
So suffice it to say, I had a bit of history going into this one, and expectations were high.
Fugitive running, fallen from grace
If, for some reason, you know nothing about the story (originally written by Victor Hugo), here’s as brief a summary as I can muster: In 1815, Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) is paroled by prison warden Javert (Russell Crowe) after spending 19 years in prison for stealing a loaf of bread.
He’s shown kindness by a bishop (Colm Wilkinson, who originated the Valjean role on stage), who takes him in, and Valjean repays him by stealing his silver. Nice. Crisis of conscience ensues, and Valjean deals with it by fleeing his parole.
Years later, living under a fake name, Valjean is a factory owner and mayor. He has another crisis of conscience when one of his employees, Fantine (Anne Hathaway), is unfairly fired. Desperate for money to support her daughter, Cosette, who is being raised by the Thénardiers (Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter), a couple of unsavory innkeepers and grifters, Fantine sells her hair and teeth, and becomes a prostitute. As a make-good, Valjean promises Fantine on her deathbed that he will look after Cosette … just as Javert catches up with him.
Valjean escapes from Javert once more, raises Cosette (Amanda Seyfried), and in 1832, finds himself at the center of an uprising in Paris, during which Cosette meets and falls for the rebel aristocrat Marius (Eddie Redmayne), who is also loved by the Thénardiers’ daughter, Éponine (Samantha Barks).
Guns are shot, canons are fired, blood is spilled, lives are lost, and Valjean comes away having learned an important lesson about love and taking responsibility for your actions.
It’s grand, dramatic stuff, and the master of the house, director Tom Hooper (The King’s Speech), has put everything into the film so it looks and feels like a giant, awards-bait, historical epic.
The problem is, he overdoes everything — except for the most important part, the singing.
The music of a people
Much has been made about the fact that during filming, the actors sang their parts live, as opposed to lip-synching to a prerecorded track (which is how most musicals, from Sweeney Todd to the TV show Glee, are made). That allowed the cast to focus as much on their acting as on their vocals.
Not sure that was the right decision, because as good as the acting is, the singing doesn’t always rise to the same level of quality.
Of the top-liners, Hathaway is the most impressive. Her “I Dreamed a Dream,” shot in such tight close-up that you have no choice but to be horrified, in a good way (at least partly because of the physical transformation the actress put herself through for the role), is nothing short of devastating. (I still say she gave a better performance this year in The Dark Knight Rises, though).
Jackman does good work during “Who Am I,” and Barks sings “On My Own” well — no surprise, given that she played Éponine on stage in London.
But I won’t exactly be rushing out to buy the film’s soundtrack.
With Les Misérables, you can’t have just anyone playing the parts. You need performers who can handle the soaring melodies and sung dialogue. Which is not to say that Jackman, Seyfried, Cohen, Crowe, et al can’t sing. It’s that they’re just not the right singers for these roles. (Crowe especially. Whoa.)
And given that the entire movie is sung-through, that’s a bit of a problem.
Actually, the actor who impressed me the most was Aaron Tveit, a Broadway veteran (Next to Normal) who plays the revolutionary Enjolras. It’s a small part, but Tveit sounds better than some of his coworkers in larger roles. It made me wish that he’d played Marius instead.
When Rent was made into a movie, much of the sung dialogue was turned into spoken dialogue, and it never sounded right. But given the limitations of the Les Misérables cast’s voices (and their forced, fake accents), I wish there had been a screenplay for this movie instead of a libretto.
In addition, Hooper often doesn’t let the songs breathe. Granted, it’s a movie, so the audience isn’t necessarily going to applaud. But still, the big songs end, and without even taking a beat, we’re on to the next scene. It’s a bit disconcerting.
One thing more
And there’s so much going on in this movie that some of the plot details you just have to buy into because, well, because that’s what you have to do. For example, the romance between the star-crossed lovers, Cosette and Marius, which is weakly developed.
The point is, this film is big and clunky, not terribly subtle, the actors can’t really carry it vocally, and it’s not until the very end, with the sweeping shots of the entire cast singing together on the barricade that Les Misérables really becomes the rousing musical it should have been sooner.
You’ll still leave the theater humming or singing the film’s marquee tunes, but that’s a credit to the material, not the movie.
So, yeah. At the end of the day, I was disappointed by Les Misérables, and I’m only going to give it a B–.
Do you want to hear the people sing? Share your thoughts about the movie in the comments section below.