Les Miserables has been a huge part of my life for as long as I have known. I’ve seen this show about four times and once at a concert version at the Hollywood Bowl. I’m typically apprehensive about film adaptations of mega stage musicals. Phantom of the Opera was a calculated mess. Usually the low maintenance stage shows get the better film adaptation (ie: Evita, Dreamgirls, Chicago, etc). Like most Mizzies, I was afraid how the film version would turn out. How do you cram a three hour show into a feature length presentation? So much happens in the three hour libretto. Can Tom Hooper’s version live up to expectation?
I saw Les Miserables at the AMC on Tremont on opening day (December 25, 2012). The showings were all sold out for the evening. I was in a cinema of Mizzies. By the time credits rolled, everyone begun dishing their first impressions. Even on the subway ride home, people were talking about what worked and what didn’t work. I let the feels sink in. My final thoughts can be summed up in, “A good adaptation – great acting, decent singing – could have been worse.”
Tom Hooper’s adaptation of the epic musical is visually stunning. The trailers showed 19th century France in a very gritty time. What I did like is that from the get go, it differentiates the 18th century revolution and this one portrayed here. I’ve known a lot of newbie Mizzies who thought it was about the Bastille and guillotines. I did like the set design and the attention to historical detail. I loved the costumes and the makeup. Javert’s costumes through the years were nice to look at. Jackman’s makeup from the young convict to the wise elder looked really good on screen. Overall, the transition of the technical aspects of stage set to screen is pretty awesome. As one review put it, even if you did a non-musical adaptation of Les Miserables, the sets worked. When things need to look sacred, they look glowing. When things need to be shitty, Valjean gets down and dirty (SWAMP MONSTER!).
Every fan I know has been nitpicking at the performances of the actors cast in the movie version since the trailers came out. Hugh Jackman’s Jean Valjean is passable. I liked his acting and his singing is pretty decent. It was nice to have both a screen and stage veteran for the leading role. Overall, a decent performance, but he could have done better with some of the more emotional songs (“Bring Him Home” and “Valjean’s Soliloquy.”) Russell Crowe was a huge miscast. While I do admit he looked very brooding and the camera loves him, I would have preferred if someone with a deeper baritone singing voice were cast as Javert. His version of “Stars” was okay, but when he’s pitted up against Phillip Quast, Norm Lewis, and Brian Stokes Mitchell, the stakes are fairly high. A fine actor and I loved how “Stars” was filmed; just wish it was Brian Stokes Mitchell atop Paris.
When I first hear Anne Hathaway’s version of “I Dreamed a Dream,” it felt like a YouTube karaoke video. There actually is reason why this version is sung the way is sung. Some may argue this is a belter’s piece. Then again, this is screen where anything too big can be seen as over the top (I’m looking at you, Gerard Butler). This falls right after “Lovely Ladies” where Fantine has practically lost everything and given up herself for the sake of Cosette. I do appreciate that this was done in one take. It could have been cheesier if it was cut to Fantine flashbacks (“He slept a summer by my side”), but the single shot close up ala “Head Over Feet” did work for this emotional point in the movie. I’m not sure if this softer version works with me; Fantine is in tears and devastated which works for the context of where the song is placed, but I’m still unsure where it ranks among the likes of Lea Salonga and Alice Ripley. I felt that Hathaway could have played Fantine much stronger than a mouse in the factory sequence. I’ve always seen Fantine as a very strong willed character; every decision she makes is for the sake of her child. Yet, each destructive decision breaks her physically apart. Part of me thinks sobbing through “I Dreamed a Dream” is Academy Award pandering and I know Hathaway has a lovely voice capeable of being on the ranks of Salonga and Ripley. Perhaps if I heard her sing this live at the 30th anniversary concert, I’d probably would be much more moved. As a standalone, “I Dreamed a Dream” did not work for me as it did for critics.
I have no real nitpicks with Cosette. She’s my least favorite character. However, I did like the young Cosette’s version of “Castle on a Cloud” and how that was staged as she looks over the children playing outside. She is apart from that world. Amanda Seyfried plays it well, but it’s not a hard role to play. She looks the part and can pass off for Catwoman’s daughter. There’s something about Amanda Seyfried’s doe-eyed look that really works with Cosette. However, I preferred the younger Cosette’s interactions with Jean Valjean, particularly in the added scenes where Valjean and Cosette are making their escape into Paris. I’m glad the movie covered that base. I’ve seen this in almost every film adaptation of Les Miserables.
Speaking of kids, Daniel Huttlestone also plays a very fun Gravoche. I did like his new verse in “Look Down” to clarify all the political unrest going on within the passage of time. It was fun to literally follow this character. Most reviews don’t touch upon this little (no pun intended) detail, but Gravoche was very much fleshed out. Unfortunately, I cannot say the same for Eponine. I don’t place the blame entirely on Samantha Barks. When I think of Eponine, I think of a boyish and playful type – the complete polar opposite of Cosette. She’s the girl who gets friend zoned and the poster child of unrequited love (“On My Own”). The movie turned her into Emo-nine. She acts depressed the whole time. Samantha played Eponine in her nobody’s fool demeanor in the 25th anniversary concert, but this directional change just seemed so off. However, Samantha has a lovely voice, just so underutilized.
As far as the barricade boys go, I loved Aaronjolaras. Like Samantha and Hugh, also a veteran of the stage. His blonde locks remind me of the Enjolaras caricature, Gregory, from the South Park movie. Aaron Tveit holds one of the strongest performances in this movie. I wish we could have seen more of the ABC revolutionaries. The ensemble pieces – “Do You Hear the People Sing” and “One Day More” are nearly pitch perfect for their screen transition. I liked that “Do You Hear the People Sing?” was placed at Lamarque’s funeral procession. On stage, it’s awesome, but the screen version makes it epic. I felt the theatre chills. If I were to pick a favorite scene from the movie, it would be this sequence. It also clarifies the whole “Who the hell is Lamarque and why the hell should I care?” notion from theatre noobs.
Eddie Redmayne was a surprise. He also held one of the stronger performances and I’m not a huge fan of Marius. I liked how the movie established that he is a rich kid that hangs out with the destitute. Yet, I felt the friendship between him and Emonine could have been done so much better. Again, directional choices. Eddie Redmayne’s “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables” was very emotional and I actually do admit I liked it better than Hathaway’s “I Dreamed a Dream.”
Last but not least, The Thenardiers. I had no doubt that Borat would make an awesome Thenardier. I was so-so about Helena Burtonia Carter. I hated her performance in Sweeney Todd, but I find it funny she looks like an out of it Angela Lansbury Lovett. I was really nervous how she would portray Thenardier, but this is passable. I tend to prefer my Madame Thenardiers to be gutsy monsters, whereas Helena Burtonia Carter plays it like a sassy Frenchie. She sings her verse of “Master of the House” to seduce an inn guest. Borat’s Thenardier was just awesome to watch. I was disappointed that “Dog Eat Dog” didn’t make the final cut. This is a really grotesque piece on seizing the moment and taking advantage of the opportunity – even it means stealing riches from the dead. I’m used to Borat singing comedy songs, so no doubt, “Master of the House” was one of the most memorable sequences in the movie. I liked how Eponine was integrated in the song. It shows that she’s familiar to The Ugly and her street smarts are all she really has. Yet, it would have made stronger if Eponine was not Emo-nine. Overall, Borat was awesome and Burtonia was passable.
What I did like about this movie is it played up the spiritual side of Les Miserables. As much as I love the libretto, the theme I always got was everyone gets a second chance; it’s up to us how we use that second chance. There’s a lot of religious imagery that’s used very well; from the time Valjean seeks sanctuary at Digne to the very end – “To love another person is to see the face of God.” I never really thought about the spiritual themes of Les Miserables. Even at this time of the review, it’s given me a lot to think about and a lot of look for the next time I see the stage version.
While the movie does have its flaws and there are things that could have been better, it’s by no means a horrible adaptation. It’s still far better than other film adaptations and it’s a visual masterpiece. Much like Alan Parker’s Evita, the film goes big. The processions are big. I just wish there were some directional choices that could have been better – casting, character changes, etc, but otherwise it’s still the same story. Songs are arranged to where they make sense in the pacing. It is a three hour tour de France, but it is well worth a look, especially if you are a self-proclaimed Mizzie.
Otherwise, there’s still the 25th Anniversary and 10th Anniversary concerts available if you prefer to hear the quintessential versions of the classics. Likewise, if Les Miserables is touring in your area, definitely see the musical the soonest you get. Save up, it’s worth it. As far as soundtracks go, I will stick to my cast recordings. It just feels awkward hearing Russell Crowe whisper in my ear.
With that said, Makin’ Movies, Singin’ Songs, Fightin’ Jean Valjean!
erica @ scarlet-rhapsody.com