Translating a stage production—especially an epic musical—to the silver screen can be difficult. I’ve never seen a stage production of Les Miserables (except for the concert that was broadcast on PBS many years ago) but it seems to me that Tom Hooper’s film translation of the Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schonberg musical is a decent one, even if there are some glaring flaws along the way.
Adapted from Victor Hugo’s eponymous novel, Les Miserables is equal parts love story and political statement, though it’s ultimately about redemption. We meet our protagonist, Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman), in 1815 France (after the French Revolution), just as he is being released on parole after serving 19 years in prison for stealing a loaf of bread. As we follow him through 1832, he is given a second chance by a sympathetic bishop (Colm Wilkinson, who originated the role of Valjean on stage in the London and Broadway productions); promises the dying Fantine (Anne Hathaway) he’ll look after her daughter, Cosette (Isabelle Allen as a child, Amanda Seyfried as a young adult); rescues Cosette from the always scheming innkeepers, the Thenardiers (Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter); and becomes a guardian angel to the student revolutionary Marius (Eddie Redmayne) who, in addition to being student revolution leader Enjolras’s (Aaron Tveit) second in command, has caught the eye of the Thenardiers’ daughter, Eponine (Samantha Barks) and, more germane to Valjean’s interest in him, fallen in love with Cosette. Oh, all this happens while Valjean’s running from the law, having broken his parole, and is being pursued by Javert (Russell Crowe).
Got all that? The truth is, if you’re curious about the details of the story, you should read Hugo’s novel. (It’s a good read, and this is coming from someone who coasted on Cliff’s Notes in high school.) In the film (and, I presume, in the stage production), you gather enough plot to be emotionally engrossed and allow yourself to be entranced by the music. (Les Mis is essentially an operetta; there’s scant dialogue.) And with the music, we come to one of the gross flaws.
Russell Crowe’s voice, while on pitch, has no depth or character. He sounds constrained and uncomfortable. Much ado was made about the actors singing live during filming, allowing them to truly act as they sang. With Crowe’s flat voice, it makes little difference. I understand that they tried to cast known actors so as to draw in big crowds, but star or not, the actor needs to be good. It’s a shame they went with Crowe instead of countless other lesser-known actors, musical theatre veterans, perhaps, like Peter Friedman. Javert gets to sing the terrific “Stars,” and Crowe’s rendition is yawn-inducing.
Such mediocrity is countered by Hugh Jackman’s phenomenal performance. A theatre veteran and Tony winner for The Boy from Oz, Jackman is sensational and leaves Crowe in the dust. Jackman sheds his hunky, superhero persona and slips into Valjean’s mercurial skin to deliver a powerful and unflinching performance. His voice holds up throughout, making you wish there were two of him so the Valjean-Javert fight was fair.
But even Jackman’s terrific performance was sometimes tarnished by Tom Hooper’s terrible direction. You may remember that I was not a fan of Hooper’s Oscar-winning direction of The King’s Speech, and his work on Les Mis did nothing to change my mind.
The direction is lazy: Hooper kept using the same pull-away shot to convey importance and power, but the repetition kept the cinematography from conveying either. When he wasn’t repeating that shot, he was being unimaginative and repeating too-close up shots of the actor’s faces. Now, I didn’t mind seeing Aaron Tveit’s or Eddie Redmayne’s face in a tight shot on a big screen, but from a storytelling perspective, it’s entirely ineffective. It’s as if Hooper thinks the only way to show intensity on screen (and maybe as a way of differentiating it from what’s possible on a stage) is to keep the camera at a weird angle and trained squarely on the actors‘ faces. But it isn’t. By closing in his shots, Hooper misses the opportunity for grandness, to make the film look as big and epic as the story it’s telling.
Still, the best part of Les Miserables as a musical is the music itself. So, let us laud the reportedly 70-piece orchestra bringing the music to life. As more and more musicals are being written for small, five-piece bands, it’s a particular treat to hear lush arrangements and listen for the nuance and aural brilliance that can only come with a full orchestra.
Let us also laud several standout performances. There has been much hype surrounding Anne Hathaway’s performance as Fantine, and she does present an emotional take on the well known “I Dreamed a Dream.” But the problem with hype is that almost nothing can live up to it. All of Hathaway’s efforts seem to be on display; I couldn’t help but be cognizant of her choices throughout the signature song, rather than allow myself to be swept up by the emotion.
Doing glorious work are several actors not receiving nearly as much hype (though they should be). Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter are a welcome breath of comic relief and the notable character actors nail the bawdy, unscrupulous and flamboyant Thenardiers. Amanda Seyfried does nicely in the thankless (and more or less uninteresting) role of Cosette. Samantha Barks delivers a star-turn as Eponine, making us forget all previous versions of “On My Own.”
Of course I thrilled over Aaron Tveit, the stage star who shows some of these movie folks how it’s done. Coming from the theatre, Tveit (Next to Normal, Catch Me if You Can) is used to simultaneously singing and acting and doing it live and doing it multiple times in a row. Just as I think Tveit as the best voice among his peers on the boards, I think he has the best voice heard in this film. But he’s more than good looks and a great voice. Tveit digs deep to get inside Enjolras’s head, imbuing him with idealism and tenacity, and bringing dynamism to a character that, in less careful hands, could be static.
I knew I’d love Tveit so the real standout for me was Eddie Redmayne. I had the pleasure of seeing Redmayne in his Tony-winning performance in Red so I knew he could act, but who knew he could sing, too? With a versatile voice, Redmayne thoroughly impressed throughout, showing true ambivalence in “Red and Black,” tenderness in “A Little Fall of Rain” and bracing vulnerability is his breathtaking rendition of “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables.”
While the flaws in this film version keep me from raving, the pros outweigh the cons and make me glad to have finally seen a fully produced version of this landmark musical. It also makes me curious to see it on stage and, if rumors are to be believed, I won’t have to wait very long. Reports say that lead producer (of the stage and screen iterations) Cameron Mackintosh is looking to revive Les Miserables on Broadway in 2014. It would mark the second Broadway revival of the fourth longest-running musical in history. Stay tuned for details!
(On a side note: as my friend’s sage mother pointed out years ago, Les Miserables takes place in France so why is everyone speaking with an English accent?!?)