On one birthday, I was taken to a touring stage production of Les Misérables as a present. I'd never heard any of the songs let alone the Victor Hugo novel on which it is based. It was a magical night. Les Misérables, or Les Mis as it's known among its passionate fans, has some extraordinary numbers which still remain in my mind all these years later. One can question why I sing Castle on a Cloud when I'm in a good mood, but that's neither here nor there. At last, after all its worldwide success and acclaim, Les Misérables has at last come to the silver screen. I think the film version of Les Misérables is a straightforward, respectful, respectable, even reverential adaptation of the musical.
That may be the problem.
The story is vast, though if I might digress it does remind me a bit of A Tale of Two Cities. Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) has been imprisoned for 19 years for having stolen a loaf of bread for his dying nephew, and at last he is paroled. However, Inspector Javert (Russell Crowe) is always hovering, making sure this wretched criminal will not break parole. Valjean has grown bitter over how life has become, and when a kindly bishop (Colm Wilkinson, the original Valjean on stage) gives him shelter, Valjean steals from him. Immediately caught, the priest not only backs up Valjean's false story but insists he 'forgot' some expensive candlesticks. Convinced that God has granted him mercy, Jean Valjean breaks parole and dedicates his life to doing good.
We go on several years. Valjean, under an assumed name, has become mayor of a town, a highly successful businessman and respected member of society. One of his employees, Fantine (Anne Hathaway), has just been thrown out of her work due to the discovery that she has a child whom she has been secretly supporting. Reduced to prostitution, she sings of when she could say I Had A Dream, but quickly she (and said dream) dies. Valjean, learning of her plight once she falls at his feet, promises to care for her dear Cossette. Of course, this comes at the worst time, since Inspector Javert has come to town, and after some hesitancy, realizes Monsieur le Mayor est Jean Valjean, criminal.
Valjean manages to give Javert the slip and goes to find Cossette, who has been watched over by the Master of the House, Thénadiere (Sasha Baron Cohen) and Madame Thénadiere (Helena Bonham Carter). While Cossette dreams of her Castle on a Cloud, Monsieur et Madame are terribly cruel to her and steal from everyone who finds themselves at their inn. They have eyes only for their daughter, Eponine. Valjean all but buys Cosette and spirits her away, again before the determined Javert can reach them. As they flee to Paris, Valjean sees how his world has changed Suddenly (the only new song written for the film).
It is now nine years later, 1832. There is revolution in the air, with young and wealthy Marius (Eddie Redmayne) as a leader. As it happens, Marius is slumming it (I think on the Left Bank), with none other than Eponine (Samantha Banks). Just One Look (no, not from the musical, but it might as well be) between Marius and the adult Cosette (Amanda Seyfried) is enough to have them fall madly, passionately in love. However, Valjean and Cosette must flee again, and Marius sends Eponine to send her one last message. It is here she realizes that she's On My Own.
Still, revolutions cannot wait on love, and Marius and his friends plot to take over Paris and remake France in true revolutionary spirit, with Javert equally determined to maintain the status quo, and both only need One More Day.
Well, the revolution is upon us, and we are asked if Do You Hear the People Sing?, but the uprising goes badly for our boys. Eponine sacrifices herself for Marius, and Valjean, realizing that Cosette and Marius love each other, begs the God who has been so kind to Bring Him Home. The revolt is put down, and while Marius mourns his friends who now occupy (not Wall Street) but Empty Chairs at Empty Tables, Javert, unable to fully follow through on arresting Valjean, kills himself. Valjean unites our lovers, and in the end, Fontine arrives as an angel to guide him to the afterlife, where we again Hear the People Sing.
Tom Hooper, straight off The King's Speech, decided to have his cast sing live rather than lip-sync to prerecorded music (a bit like Rex Harrison did for the film version of My Fair Lady). This was not a bad decision overall given that some of the cast did a magnificent job singing (or rather, surprised people in being able to sing). However, not all of the singing was on equal standing.
It's known that Jackman has years of theatrical training and delights in singing showtunes (much to the horror of X-Men fans who cannot imagine Wolverine singing and dancing on stage). Les Misérables gives Jackman a chance to show us exactly how good he is, how strong his voice is. Of course, even in a musical, it's not just a question of singing but of acting, and Jackman is solid as the bitter man turned protector of the innocent.
There is much talk of Anne Hathaway receiving an Oscar nomination for her Fantine, and while she shows great pathos with I Dreamed a Dream, she is on screen a remarkably short period of time. Perhaps my memory of the show is thin, but I didn't realize how small the role is. Still, in terms of a performance (acting and singing-wise), Hathaway does a marvelous job.
The big surprises come from two other performers, one gaining some popularity, one not as well-known as perhaps talent merits. Redmayne, last seen as the 'My' in My Week With Marilyn, plays the rather milquetoast frustrated revolutionary with the appropriate level of performing, but when he uses his tenor to mourn his comrades at Empty Chairs at Empty Tables, the moment is surprisingly good.
It is Samantha Barks who should be the one being pushed for Best Supporting Actress. On My Own is something that few songs in this adaptation were: a natural showstopper. The song and her acting performance are allowed to build slowly until her lament at Marius' inability to see her as nothing more than a pal breaks your heart.
I digress to say that most other songs in the film are geared to be deliberately big, and whether one thinks this is good or not I leave to the viewer. However, more on that later.
There are two other performances, important ones, that merit looking over.
The best way to describe it is to say Russell Crowe sounded like Russell Crowe singing. That is, his speaking voice isn't that different from his singing voice--that same growl he uses in Gladiator is still here.
For my taste, I found Seyfried appropriately beautiful but appropriately vapid as Cosette (again, I did not realize how weak the romance between Marius and Cosette was until I saw it on screen). Her voice I would describe as 'chirpy', high and full of vibrato even when perhaps the song didn't call for it. It's not an unpleasant voice by any stretch but not the greatest voice I've heard.
Finally, I'm not a fan of Cohen (who might as well have just said he recreated his role from Sweeney Todd) so I wasn't happy to see him here. Carter on the other hand, while being also similar to her Sweeney Todd turn did show her wicked sense of glee and even frustration at her husband.
On the whole, the cast accorded itself well. It's Hooper who appears determined to give us a filmed version of the musical, rather than a musical film.
A film allows for a more cinematic style, a chance to open up the stage story and free up the imagination to see things that a stage production cannot. Instead, Hoper appears more interested in filming the musical in a direct manner, one where we are given the scene, the actors sing, we move on.
For example, when we have the character singing we just see them, only rarely venturing out to perhaps the object of the song or a more imaginative style the song can lend itself to. Take Empty Chairs at Empty Tables. Marius has returned to where his friends spoke great thoughts for a better France. Perhaps he could have 'seen' them there, or had Marius move about the room, contemplating the loss of his friends. Instead, we just see him singing his song, nothing more, nothing less.
I can understand why William Nicholson, Alain Boublil, Claude-Michel Schonberg, and Herbert Kretzmer opted to adapt Les Misérables as close to the stage production as possible, but I do wonder whether having what is essentially an opera presented to us was a good idea. There was nary a moment of spoken lines in the film. I couldn't help think of the film version of a similarly popular musical/opera, Phantom of the Opera. There, they opted to have a few moments of rest, either with a silent moment or when lines that were sung were instead spoken.
No such doing with Les Misérables. Singing we had in the original and singing we got in the film version. I can't say that people will get exhausted with one number following another, but I can't help think people might have done well in stopping every so often to metaphorically get our breath. In fact, it isn't until when the uprising begins, well near Hour Two, that we FINALLY get some spoken dialogue.
My biggest complaint about Les Misérables, what pushed the film down from what might have been, is in how Hooper decided to film the various numbers. There is a mad abundance of Dutch angles unseen since perhaps Battlefield Earth, and the camera flies all about with near-naked abandon. I wanted to tell Hooper to simply not move the camera so much.
Earlier, I critizised Hooper for not being imaginative in how he stages the songs. Well, there was one time when he did try something, but it didn't have the effect he might have hoped for. Valjean sings Bring Him Home (and I'd argue Jackman might have strained to sing so high...he did it, but one almost thought he was forcing it out, a minor point). This is a plea to God for protection of this youth. Hooper has an eye hovering over Valjean that was borderline creepy and frankly none-too-subtle about how Valjean pleads with God to 'watch' over Marius. Hooper's staging of this (having this single eye hovering over Valjean at an odd angle) is sadly obvious in the symbolism and its intent.
In regards to other matters, everything in Les Misérables is appropriately respectful of the source material. Eve Stewart and Anna Lynch-Robinson's production design delights in the squalor of the miserable ones, Danny Cohen's cinematography is beautiful when it needs to be, ugly when it calls for it, and Paco Delgado doesn't overdo the costumes.
What I found in Les Misérables is that ultimately its far too reverential and deferential to the original stage production to be either its own film independent of the musical or a cinematic adaptation to it. Instead, Les Misérables wants us to recall the stage production and never forget it will not stray from its roots. What could have been a liberating, even imaginative film version of this epic musical becomes respectful, even a bit timid in how it treats the material as if it were holy writ. Les Misérable is not a bad film, hardly that.
It is just not the one thing that even that touring company production was: thrilling.
Cosette, I love you very much.
The film, well...