“Les Miserables,” without sounding dramatic, changed my life. One of the best parts of an otherwise tortured high school existence was my chorus. Its images, story and music left an indelible impression: the image of light shining on the beatific faces each time a character died; Valjean running in a whirlwind chase though he just went around the stage. I knew we had entered another world, the theatre, with its own rules.
But most of all, I loved that show because I knew somehow in some way the imagination would be the home of my future profession. Victor Hugo’s classic novel and Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg masterpiece musical set the bar high whether you want to be a writer, actress, or composer.
People like me makes “Les Mis” a great find for studios looking to cash in on a built-in audience and a nightmare for a director looking to put a stamp on a story that has resonated with fans for over 25 years. What could director Tom Hooper bring to the table?
For me: Hooper Brought It. If theatre has its own rules, so does cinema and Hooper knows those rules and knows when to break them. From the opening scene with the crashing waves barraging the bodies and souls of weary prisoners to the majestic funeral procession that no theatre could depict, Hooper made the musical his. He made it into a cinematic experience, and still offered legions of fans the close-up’s of actors that only orchestral seats could provide. Future generations could almost think that the film inspired the musical. Almost.
In musicals, the voices are the characters as much as the acting and here is where the movie faltered. No one breaks into song with dialogue for reprieve. The entire story is sung and that demands strong voices as much as strong actors. To Hooper’s immense credit, he broke tradition and had his actors sing live during filming, with earpieces so they could hear the piano accompaniment. It made the story come alive but not all the voices were up to the task.
Russell Crowe was completely miscast as Javert in voice and characterization. Javert is a daunting figure with a baritone voice. Javert may be cold on the outside, but he is torn on the inside. Given the entire movie was mainly close-up’s of the actors, the inner life must shine through. It didn’t even peep through with Crowe.
Amanda Seyfried had “Mamma Mia” to her credit so perhaps the producers thought, why not? Well, why not was because she can’t hit the notes. The purity of Cosette comes out in the pure Vienna Boys Choir type of soprano that the actress who plays her usually brings to the table.
Eddie Redmayne’s Marius was terrific, but I couldn’t help notice Redmayne shook every time he sang. Once I noticed it, I couldn’t un-notice it. Reading up on him, he admitted that he’d never been in a musical and trained only for the movie. Given that, it was damn good.
I didn’t dig Sacha Baron Cohen’s Italian (or whatever accent he was going for) take on the innkeeper. Cohen could’ve easily played a fat-bellied, Cockney lewd man. Why he didn’t, I don’t know. But I guess people know the comedian and the audience laughed even when he said nothing.
Hugh Jackman was mesmerizing — as was his physique yet again though in a different way than Wolverine’s — but it was obvious that he’s not a natural tenor. After the movie, I looked it up and he admits that for 8 years his vocal training has gotten to stretch the octave range of his natural baritone.
The problem is not Jackman. It’s just once you’ve heard Colm Wilkinson’s Jean Valjean, no one comes close.
There is an inimitable tenderness and beauty to Mr. Wilkinson’s voice. Just the first three words of his rendition of “Bring Him Home” (forever in my memory as “God on High”) will send tremors down your spine. You are hoping God is listening to that man’s prayer for if not his, then no one’s with our crude voices pleading and bargaining with the cold Universe.
I waited breathlessly because Samantha Barks had THE SONG of the musical, that girls still audition to, that even “Glee” opened with: “On My Own.” Barks did well, not mind blowing – and has a tiny waist. But she even said that due to the live singing on set, “vocal vanity had to be put to the side” so perhaps that’s the trade-off to capture honesty cinematically.
Aaron Tveit killed it as Enjolaras. He’s a Broadway musical star (Next to Normal and Catch Me If You Can). Like Jackman, his voice and entire being projects that experience. Here’s a great behind-the-scenes look at the song “Red and Black” and interview of Tveit on how the songs were shot on ew.com, “…filming Red and Black.”
But apart from Jackman who was the movie’s core, Anne Hathaway was astounding. I completely disagree with Anthony Lane’s “New Yorker” review. Then again, many of its reviews or articles dismiss any hint of emotion as emotionalism or sentimentality. Such was the case with the reviewer, Mr. Lane, who wrote that Hathaway “probably took one look at the material and realized that the only way to survive it was by the naked power of oomph.”
Hathaway was not over-the-top. One only has to go to a third world brothel (yes, I’ve been) to know the broken lives of these women who are “the bottom of the heap” — much less the terror of being in that position over a 150 years ago. So if you wanted a more subtle rendering of a woman broken by life, forced into prostitution, well, it’s not subtle. It’s gross and horrible and should rip your heart out. Hathaway did that.
Although Jezebel’s article, “You Probably Like Les Mis Because You Have the Shitty Tastes of a Tween” may have some accurate points for why some people may like it — it features the ever suffering girl in love with her oblivious best friend — none of those points applied to me.
Way back when I didn’t know my head from my ass, and knew little of love or the world – either a day or fifteen years ago depending on how you view it – it wasn’t Eponine who caught my heart but Fantine, Valjean, and the boys of the barricade. Even Eponine, representative of teen unrequited love everywhere, on closer look is not so much a tween “Sixteen Candles” figure but a girl with a shitty life who falls in love with the one person who’s shown her kindness.
I also don’t think a story based on a novel that has lasted over a century reflects bad taste. The story has traversed language, culture, and ethnicity and the musical is a hit in several countries in every continent for the past quarter century. Despite logistical barriers, a common humanity instinctively speaks to us on many levels — this site highlights many of the themes and questions.
Take “Empty Chairs, Empty Tables.” Somehow it seems that the essence of grief has been captured musically. Lyrically it resonates with all who have experienced loss: “there’s a grief that can’t be spoken, as the pain goes on and on…” to crescendo into that lament, “forgive me that I live and you are gone.” It seems like if that silent agony could be sung, it would sound just like that. That’s the beauty of the musical, that marriage between emotion, lyrics, and music in perfect balance.
To be able to do all that takes keen observation of society and a master hand and powerful imagination to create a compelling story. Hugo did that in the novel, Schoenberg-Boubil did that for the musical, and now Hooper has captured the same magic cinematically.