Les Miserables 2012: This Never-Ending Road to Calvary

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It’s a hit: Hugh Jackman and Anne Hathaway for the gold.

Although I love Les Miserables (it was one of the first musicals I saw live) and was very excited to see this adaptation, I didn’t expect to love it quite as much as I did.  Film adaptations of musicals are a tricky beast, since, IMO, the suspension of disbelief and mediums are so different.  When you see a play or a musical live on stage, you are exposed to the set, the costumes, the characters, and the extras in real time.  You are in charge of the viewer experience – your eyes can wander and absorb different details as your eyes move across the stage.  This is still true in film, but I think somehow it is to a lesser degree: with film, the filmmaker is in control of what you see, frame by painstaking frame.   Backdrops can’t be swept away to signify the passage of time or change of place, and somehow, on stage, a character breaking into song seems more expected than the very same dynamic on screen — maybe because the movements in stage acting are more exaggerated than that on film?  I’m not sure.

That being said, Tom Hooper’s adaptation of this timeless story of love, war, politics , and class warfare is beautifully done, and particularly timely.  I left the theater with tears in my eyes, and have had the 10th Anniversary recording on repeat ever since.

The (soon-to-be) award-winning strong points:

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Cinematography, set-design, and costumes resulting in scenes that simply left me breathless: namely, the opening scene in which a group of prisoners pulling titanic-sized ropes attempt to pull a ship into port against the beating sea.   The epic-ness of this scene is something that I felt was actually an improvement over the stage version.  It is here that we meet Jean Valjean, played by Hugh Jackman, who looks every bit as weary, angry, hungry, and beaten-down as we would expect.  His physical transformation alone is worth an Oscar nomination, as is his makeup.  The look in his eyes when we see him for the first time is captivating, and he doesn’t lose it throughout the 157 minutes of this film.  It is also in this scene that we also meet Inspector Javert, played by Russell Crowe, standing atop the port looking down on his minions with a look of law and order, as if everything in the world is in it’s correct place.

Other gorgeous sequences include the end of Valjean’s soliloquy (one of my favorite pieces) when he throws his torn-up parole letter off the cliff, the camera panning outward to the unforgettable instrumentation of “One Day More,” or the culmination of the perfectly choreographed battle cry “Do You Hear the People Sing?” as the people of France take to the streets in brave uprising.  I listened to an NPR interview with Tom Hooper, who spoke of telling the actors that the audience needed to believe that they created these songs in times of crisis, rather than simply performing iconic songs in a film.  I think this difficult task is achieved, partly due to the fact that the film had a lot of character close-ups — a technique which cannot be done on stage — that really added a personal tone to the film, especially during pieces like “I Dreamed a Dream,” “Look Down,” “Valjean’s Soliloquy” and “Stars.”

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Anne Hathaway: Love her or hate her, she totally nailed Fantine.  My fear was that she would overact and make Fantine sort of… Hollywood, or glamorized.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  From the moment we meet Fantine, as she works in a factory surrounded by women in blue, hardened by their circumstances, she is humble and poised — separated from them by her soft pink dress and long waves.  As her luck changes and she is thrown from the factory to the streets, she is frenetic and scared to death, but in an understated way.  The first thing I actually thought of was, believe it or not, Judy Garland.  If you know me, you’ll know this is not a comparison that I make often, or make lightly, but Hathaway definitely blew my mind in her interpretation of this character.  What I think I loved most about Hooper’s direction is that he didn’t turn “I Dreamed a Dream” into Hathaway’s money shot.  Instead, we get a very gritty and real version of this song — in fact, it is almost unexpected.  As Fantine lays in a makeshift bed — her beautiful hair chopped off and sold, her cheek swollen from a crude tooth extraction done in exchange for money, legs splayed apart — after prostituting herself for the first time, she begins to sing.  Never were the first words to this song more poignant as we see Fantine in this state, surrounded by a set that evokes an almost other-wordly helll, “there was a time when men were kind…”

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Hugh Jackman: Hugh F-ing Jackman.  I can’t imagine anyone else having played Jean Valjean.  At first, I was skeptical because I didn’t think his voice had the power to pull off the musical numbers.  And true, he’s no John Raitt, but what he lacks in the belting department he makes up for in his sensitive interpretations of the songs.  As Valjean ages throughout the course of the film, he loses the harsh and almost frightening look that we meet him with, and slowly transforms to look wiser, braver, yet more delicate.  He is the perfect marriage of masculinity and vulnerability: someone with the strength to lift a broken carriage or drag the dead weight of a wounded young man through the sewers of France, and someone to comfort a scared little girl alone in the woods.  He and Hathaway are this film’s port in the storm.

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Isabelle Allen: I don’t know who this girl is, but she was born to play young Cosette.  She is literally everything that I ever imagined Cosette to be — it’s like they transformed that image of the little girl from the marquee that we know so well into a living, breathing, creature.  And she’s not annoying in the way that young actresses (especially those who sing) can be.  You know what I’m talking about.

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Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen: I didn’t really like the choice of these two at first, and I thought their interpretation of the spineless, moral-less, villains Madame Thenardier and Thenardier was a little too campy, but then I realized that it added a bit of flamboyant comic relief to an otherwise very emotionally heavy film — and I think that’s precisely what these two characters are meant to do.  I think you’ll either love these two or hate them.

The weak links:

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Russell Crowe: It hurts me to say it, but it’s true, and not entirely his fault.  He was seriously miscast in this role, not so much because he couldn’t play Javert, but because he doesn’t have the singing voice to pull him off.   When I first saw that he was cast, I didn’t realize that this film was going to be entirely sung-through like a stage play, I figured it would be an adaptation with a few songs thrown in.  Russell Crowe did look great as Javert in the opening scene (I love a man in uniform), but it felt like he was struggling with the musical pieces the entire way through, and that took away from the emotional impact of the character, namely in his suicide scene.  Even the opening scene with the vocal back-and-forth between Valjean and Javert that establishes their relationship suffered because of Crowe’s voice.  When he says, “Do not forget my name,” I couldn’t help but think, “No, but we will certainly never forget your voice….” As if it wasn’t bad enough on its own, Crowe’s singing seemed particularly horrid because, in an act of sheer cruelty, Tom Hooper decided to throw Crowe into a cast that is largely composed of musical theatre singers (Eddie Redmayne, Samantha Barks, Hugh Jackman). What really bothers me is that he didn’t even seem physically imposing – not necessarily a required trait for Javert, but if you aren’t going to have the strong pipes to pull of his numbers, at least look the part.  For some reason, Crowe didn’t, and I’m not sure why.  He’s certainly capable of it – (see also, Romper Stomper and LA Confidential) but it just didn’t happen for him in this role. But, I will say this – the man can ride a horse.

Length: This is going to sound hypocritical from someone who saw Titanic 4 times in the theater and asked about an extended version, but this movie was a little bit long.  Again, not so much the fault of the director, as Les Mis is simply a long musical.  I love the score tremendously, but one of the reasons that I’ve only seen the show live once is because it’s just too long. The only parts that really dragged for me in the film version were the barricade preparation scenes.  Those songs aren’t my favorites, either.

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Amanda Seyfried’s High Notes:  I thought Amanda Seyfried was really great in her role as Cosette, but for some reason, her extreme high notes annoyed the hell out of me.  They were bordering on glass-shattering… I think every dog within a 10-mile radius of the theater crawled under their owner’s kitchen tables when she let one out.

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Marius the Ginger:  Even though he did an amazing job both singing and acting, it bothered me that Marius looked like a member of the Royal Family.  He’s supposed to be a handsome, young Frenchman, not Prince William’s college roomate.  And his name is Eddie Redmaybe – you just can’t make this shit up.

All in all – I would say this is a solid 9/10.

Beautifully done with a cast that is loaded with talent.  An impressive and gracious adaptation of Victor Hugo’s novel and the Schönberg musical.  All these years later, this score is still one of the most beautiful that I have ever heard.  As we reach the fiscal cliff, images of the starving French people watching carriages of wealthy fat cats pass them by is eerily poignant.  If you have the chance, see Les Miserables on the big screen so you can get the full effect!

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8 replies

  1. Great post! Really well-written, makes me want to go see the movie even though I wasn’t planning on it!

  2. Agree about Hathaway. Really wished they had included an intermission. My legs by the end were aching! Check out my review http://amandalovesmovies.com/2013/01/02/les-miserables/

    • Enjoyed your review! I always wonder why they don’t do intermissions more during films. And totally agree about inappropriate audience members. The last two Paranormal Activity installments had children under the age of 4 in them – who does that?

  3. Wonderful review. I got a great sense of how much Les Mis means to you from this review. I was able to see the film two days after Christmas, almost a year ago. I keep a CD of the music in my car, and now almost year after seeing, and reviewing the film, I listen to the music at least once a week.

    You remarked that the film was a bit long, and I am not disputing that. However, the CD from the film did not include Do You hear the People Sing? So using the context of the film a bit too long, I must say, the CD is a bit – too short.

    My own review:
    http://jmmnewaov2.wordpress.com/2012/12/27/les-miserables-2012/

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