You need to know upfront that I’m a Les Miserables-aphile. I read Victor Hugo’s classic in 8th grade…and I’ve returned to it regularly.
I’ve seen the musical in Washington, DC, Baltimore, Broadway in NYC and in London. I’ve got a few different versions of the musical soundtracks, including the best one, the 25th Anniversary edition. I watched the horrible Les Mis movie with Liam Neeson more than a decade ago and have never forgiven him for it (in my opinion, he deserved all the awfulness that was heaped on his head for his turn in Clash of the Titans).
I’ve scoured the internet for bootlegged copies of DVD’s of the musical, only to be constantly disappointed.
In my humble opinion, it is one of the best pieces of literature ever written. And if that’s not enough, it highlights, explores and expounds on every reason I’m a Christian. It’s just that good.
Needless to say…when I saw that director Tom Hooper (The King’s Speech and The Damned United) was taking the helm of the musical, to say that I was excited would be the understatement of the year.
Then I saw one of my favorite trailers of all time, featuring the haunting voice of Anne Hathaway as Fantine. I swear, I probably account for at least half of these video views.
So it was with baited breath and an optimistic heart that I went to the late show of Les Miserables last night. And I feel like I can say that it was worth the wait and was a very good film, but one that is still flawed.
Here’s a topline, followed by some more in depth thoughts of PROS and CONS.
The musical story is kept perfectly in tact (which is a truncated version of a very complex book), which will relieve any musical devotee. The singing swings the gamut from breathtakingly beautiful to awkward and painful (though most stays just right of very good). The sets and and costuming spare no expense, while the cinematography and direction are still searching for a coherent balance. The acting is excellent, even while 1-2 of the lead singers struggle vocally. All in all…if you loved the musical, you’ll really, really enjoy the movie. Overal Grade: B.
- Hugh Jackman. He simply nails the part of Jean Valjean, the soul-tortured ex-con who breaks parole to ensure some kind of a life for himself (he spent 19 years in a chain gang for stealing a loaf of bread too feed his starving nephew). Vocally, he’s very different than the classic Valjean voice. There were only a few times when that didn’t seem to work. But from an acting perspective, he kills it. His character transformation isn’t simply isn’t something we experience from the words he sings; rather, it’s all in the face, as he moves from an angry, bitter man (who could blame him) to a selfless man full of love and grace. I also think they do a nice job aging him.
- Anne Hathaway. There has been much talk of her playing the part of Fantine, the deserted wife who is forced into prostitution to care for her daughter Cossette. The song I Dreamed a Dream has a life of its’ own that has made many people famous (Susan Boyle, included). In my opinion, she’s the highlight of the whole movie. In Valjean, you see tightly restrained emotions that torture a man over 30 years. In Fantine, you get to experience all of the heartbreak, loss and numbness that come from life stepping on your neck, forcing you into a gutter face-first and never letting you up. The emotion is raw, unrestrained and visceral. Fantine is the emotional core of the first half of Les Miserables and in Hathaway, you find it lighting up the whole movie. I wanted more (though realized the story doesn’t have more). Mark my words: She will take home the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress. And she deserves it. I have not enjoyed a Supporting role this much in quite some time.
- Singing as acting. One big change that director Tom Hooper made was not recording vocals first, but allowing the actors to sing it live while shooting (with a tiny earpiece in that had a piano following where they went), creating the opportunity for them to act rather than fit into a mold made by following a recording. This really, really works most of the time. It allows the story to progress and feel far more like a story unfolding in a movie than a musical we happen to be watching. The songs it changes the most are the monologues of the main characters, but I enjoyed the subtle changes. It was close enough to the original songs that as a fan you didn’t feel betrayed, but took licenses that were worth it.
- Faith as central. If you’ve read the book, you know that the musical tempers the faith elements significantly. They are still present, but faith is really quite central to the book. While Hooper doesn’t change the songs to add extra dialogue, he does use symbolism to profound effect in a way that the musical never does. One example is when Valjean is being paroled, Javert asks him to pick up the mast of a ship and move it, as his last act on the clink. The way he picks it up and the way it’s shot, it’s made to look as if it is Jesus picking up the cross. Clearly, Valjean is to be a messianic figure in the same way that Myshkin is in Dostoevsky’s classic book The Prince. That’s part of the point. I think they really do the overtones of the book more justice in how this is utilized in the movie. Kudos to Hooper who did a better job integrating that into the experience from the source material without ever getting preachy.
- Group numbers. Some of the best sing-a-long songs are the fist pumping group numbers where there are 40-50 people singing in the second half of the film. For the most part, these worked really well and were quite reminiscent of musical.
- The opening. The first 15 minutes were underwhelming, and that’s being charitable. Most of this has to do with some very challenging vocals needed by the leads Valjean (Jackman) and Javert (Russell Crow). The low baritone vocals needed to hit the gravity of the first 15 minutes that set the emotional stage for 19th century France are missing. It recovers, but only as the first act is closing when Valjean decides to break parole.
- It was uneven. There were parts that were absolutely excellent, lasting for 10 minutes at a time. There were parts that were just short of poor and I felt it dragged the whole movie down. And it happened for about two thirds of the movie (the last third seemed to finally take care of the problem). It felt herky-jerky at times. I walked away thinking, “Did Tom Hooper never watch the movie in one sitting?” It felt like everything was constructed in a vacuum, stitched together from scene to scene.
- The cinematography. The sets and costumes are stunning. Too bad you don’t get to see much of it. The majority of the film is shot staring straight into the actors faces, with long, wobbily closeups. Honestly, this was the part I was most disappointed in. There was so much opportunity to do something special in constructing a visual presence that connected the music, the vocals, the story and the actors together. It never really materialized. There were brief moments where a shot would be perfectly framed, as in a Wes Anderson movie (a shot of Valjean praying in a chapel, the already-mentioned shot of him picking up the mast, Javert walking the ledge of a building alluding to something else going on). But it was brief and it was like a photograph, not like something that was moving and breathing. Because of this, the second half of the movie never quite grabs hold as the Barricade forms. In the end, this is what happened: In the musical, you are able to experience both the transcendant and the intimate, as it’s constantly moving from the collective experience of a large group of people to the micro experience of one or two people. As it does this well, you are able to share in a wide range of emotions. The movie felt caught in the middle. With only a few exceptions, you never get swept up in the grandeur, but because the comparative experience is missing, the intimate doesn’t feel quite as close either.
- The humor. The comic relief in Les Mis is well known…the completely unruly, thieving, unholy, hilarious couple known as the Thenardiers. In the movie they are well cast with Sasha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter. I can’t say it enough: They are perfect for this part. The problem is they are never really unhinged. It’s kind of rote and some of their key scenes are truncated. To be sure, they have some really hilarious parts. But if you’ve seen the musical, you know it’s two times funnier. Honestly, this is a directoral problem. The biggest effect is that a story already entitled The Miserable never has the levity of humor it needs to dive into the type of material this movie covers without feeling too depressing.
It could come across that I’m more negative on this movie than I actually am. In reality, I’m just trying to give my top PROS and CONS. For me, there were actually a lot more Pros than Cons. However, I’m positive all of this is tainted by my unrealistic hopes going into it. It is quite good, if not great at some points, and is the type of movie you want Hollywood to make more of. Furthermore, if my kids were 12-13 years old, I’d take them to see it in a heartbeat, just like my parents did when I was that age. Does it have allusions to sexuality and the underbelly of society? Definitely. But it does so in a way that would spark great discussions about the nature of life, society, justice, love, grace and God. In other words…all the reasons that I love this story in the first place.
The movie isn’t perfect, but I can’t wait to see it again.