For twenty-five years, people have been waiting and hoping for a film version of the Broadway classic Les Misérables. Now that it has arrived comes the sad realization that it may have been an impossible dream.
I’m having an odd love-hate reaction to the Les Misérables film. Perhaps that is because it is one of my favorite musicals ever and that fondness for the source material has made me expect too much.
Technically it looks lovely – bleak, yes, but the story has always been bleak. The sets are terrific. The acting is mostly quite good. The singing is also mostly quite good – though Russell Crowe’s pub rock vocals as Inspector Javert are not quite up to the material.
However, through an odd scoring tic that I’m sure that the filmmakers felt would keep the movie more cinematic, many of the songs of Les Miz (but thankfully not all) are performed in an odd speak-sing manner. To wit, the people often perform the lines of the songs as dialogue, speaking with discrete musical backing and then eventually slipping in and out of actually singing the lyrics.
While that may work cinematically, it saps the songs of much of their power. Les Misérables is an opera and it should be treated that way. Dialogue is unnecessary and even superfluous. There are at least three or four songs in this musical that can make me cry simply from listening to them on the soundtrack album, and yet the way they were performed here none of them connected in such an emotional way, and only “A Little Fall of Rain” came even close. In fact, the affected, tragic way that Anne Hathaway performs what is arguably the best known song of the play, the shattered remembrance “I Dreamed a Dream,” may be catnip for acting awards, but it stifles the musicality of the song.
Director Tom (The King’s Speech) Hooper’s odd decision to film many of these songs as extreme close-ups of the singer also works at odd cross-purposes with the theatricality of the music.
Les Misérables is based on Victor Hugo’s 1862 literary classic of the same name. It is both an exceedingly simple and complex story. It is the story of Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) a former convict who was sentenced to 19 years of hard labor for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his sister’s starving baby. Even after he does his time he is watched by the obsessive Inspector Javert (Crowe), who believes that once a man has been branded a thief then he will always be evil.
When a kindly bishop (Colm Wilkinson) refuses to have Valjean sent back to jail for stealing his silver, Valjean decides to go straight and dedicate his life to helping people. He disappears and takes on a new identity, becoming a wealthy businessman and the mayor. When he fails to see the desperation of Fantine (Hathaway), one of the women working in his factory, Valjean agrees to care for the dying woman’s young daughter Cosette (played by Isabelle Allen as a child and Amanda Seyfried as a woman). Valjean dedicates his life to making Cosette safe and happy. Problem is, Javert is constantly trying to find him and put him back in jail.
However, truthfully, despite the fact that the storyline sort of revolves around her, Cosette has always been a nothing role: a beautiful, helpless cipher who only exists to be adored and for whose sake everyone else suffers. It is not just a coincidence that of the three main female roles, Cosette, Fantine, and Eponine, the other two women were the ones who got the show-stopping songs “I Dreamed a Dream” and “On My Own.” They are simply more interesting – both as characters and as women – because they have lived life and endured hardship. And no, I don’t consider mopping the floor as a child while singing “Castle on a Cloud” to be enduring hardship.
They are in Paris at the dawn of the French Revolution and Cosette falls in love at first sight with a student revolutionary named Marius (Eddie Redmayne) who is manning the barricades and he falls for her. They are connected by Eponine (Samantha Barks) a street girl that Cosette knew as a child who is also in love with Marius, though for her the love is unrequited. (Which is honestly kind of crazy, Eponine is a much more fascinating woman than Cosette would ever be and she is about as pretty.)
Marius and his friends take up the fight with the working poor of Paris and a little kid named Gavroche. Gavroche is a bit annoying – you keep wondering what a Cockney street urchin is doing in revolutionary Paris – though in fairness the role was always played in the same manner onstage. As revolution is coming, Valjean and Javert are drawn into the fight.
Like I said, it’s a big and sometimes complex story. The grand scenes of battles and tragedy are the ones that work best for Les Misérables as a movie. The problem is, those are the least interesting scenes for Les Misérables as a musical. Attempts to turn the action realistically cinematic often fall flat and even distract. Two very specific examples come immediately to mind – the flood of excrement in the sewer scenes and the sickening bloody thud of a body landing after a long fall. Both seem excessive and could have been handled with more tact and imagination.
Les Misérables is at its most effective and affecting in the small scenes of humans relating with each other and the huge scope and overwhelming bleakness of the film dwarves many of the finest points of the musical.
Will Les Misérables be a big hit and probably an award winner as well? I have no doubt. Is it a disappointment in comparison to the stage show? I’m afraid so.
Jay S. Jacobs
Copyright ©2012 PopEntertainment.com. All rights reserved. Posted: December 25, 2012.