Les Misérables (2012)

Les Misérables (2012) – So I’ve been getting more into musicals lately (especially as I am going to start auditioning for them) and hey, it just so happens a new one came out at the end of the year. (Worth noting: the other big-budget musical that came out this year, Rock of Ages, is one of the year’s worst films that I’ve seen.) Now, going into it, I had no real background knowledge of Les Misérables. I knew it was based on a Victor Hugo novel and I assumed the characters were, well, miserable. (I also knew that the main character’s prison number, 24601, was used on The Simpsons for Sideshow Bob’s.) Now the stage musical of Les Misérables is pretty widely beloved. So was this movie going to knock my socks off? Or would it be a disappointing adaptation? Or if it was a disappointing adaptation, would I even notice not being familiar with the source material?

(The plot summary paragraph is longer and a bit more detailed than I usually get. You could consider it somewhat spoilerish, so if you avoid that kind of thing skip the next paragraph.)

Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) is Prisoner 24601. He stole some bread to feed his starving nephew and due to repeated escape attempts, his prison sentence has been 19 years. Now he’s free, but soon learns that 19th century France is not overly kind to parolees. He tries to rob a Bishop who shows him kindness. When the police catch Jean, the Bishop (played by Colm Wilkinson, the original stage Valjean) claims that he GAVE Valjean the things he stole. Valjean is touched by the man’s kindness and chooses to use his gifts to turn his life around and create a new identity, becoming the mayor of a small town. However Inspector Javert (Russell Crowe), the man who oversaw Valjean’s prison stay, recognizes him and vows to bring him to “justice” (Valjean being a fugitive for not checking in with the parole system). Valjean also encounters Fantine (Anne Hathaway), a downsized factory worker who has turned to selling her body (in more ways than one) to support her small child Cosette (Isabelle Allen). Cosette is being looked after by the loathsome Thénardiers (Sascha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter), two-bit swindlers who run a disreputable hotel. Valjean vows to look after Cosette. Years later, Valjean and Cosette (now played by Amanda Seyfried) are living in Paris. A student revolutionary named Enjolras (Aaron Tveit) is trying to rally his peer group against the government. Marius (Eddie Redmayne) is a young revolutionary who falls for Cosette, even though the Thénardiers’ daughter Éponine (Samanatha Barks) is madly in love with him. Um… did I leave anything out? There’s a kid named Gavroche (Daniel Huttlestone) and a whole lot of dirty people… and singing… so much singing…

Les Misérables is notable for the way in which it recorded the vocals. As opposed to recording the songs in a recording studio and lip syncing on set, as most movie musicals do, the actors were recorded singing on location. They had earpieces so they could hear a piano accompaniment and then the orchestration was built around their vocal performance. Now I’ve noticed the reaction to this gamble has been mixed. Some people are put off by the way the voices don’t sound as polished as you’d expect professionals cast in a musical to be. Others, and I find myself in this camp, are impressed with just how much emotion and immediacy this brings to the songs. Anne Hathaway sings “I Dreamed a Dream” through choked sobs, and while that might not have the vocal power of many prerecorded versions of that song it is the most powerful and moving version I’ve ever encountered. Tom Hooper, who previously directed the excellent The King’s Speech, creates a world with his movie. This world contains some impressive sweeping visuals, but Hooper instead chooses to spend a good chunk of the film in close-up shots. While I am no opponent to close-ups (I am a Sergio Leone fan, after all) I really didn’t think it worked here. It showcases the acting really well (again, “I Dreamed a Dream”) but it somewhat diminishes the overall visual impact of the film. Maybe some more editing? Cut between different kind of shots instead of getting all up in people’s pores for three straight minutes?

Okay, now for the acting and singing. Hugh Jackman is quite good acting-wise in the lead role… for most of the movie. Once the movie jumped forward to the last part with the adult (or teenage) Cosette, I felt that Jackman’s Valjean grew a little more wooden. I’m not sure if that was intentional or if so what possible motivation there could have been for that. His voice overall works for the movie, though it doesn’t quite live up to the reputation Jackman earned as a Tony-winning Broadway star. Many people point to Russell Crowe as the big disappointment of the film. I defend his acting (he sells the determinism and eventual inner conflict of Javert very well) but there is no way around it: he is woefully miscast as far as vocal ability. It’s not that his voice just outright sucks, it’s that it’s just completely the wrong voice for this part. He’s done musical theater before and has a rock band, but being able to sing doesn’t mean you can sing everything. You wouldn’t pay to see Tom Waits do Puccini, would you? (Okay… actually I would. That sounds awesome.) Eddie Redmayne is all right, but a bit throaty and like many romantic leads throughout the ages there’s no real sense of what makes the relationship between him and Cosettle “love” and not just “hey, she’s hot.” Seyfried’s voice is… um… I wouldn’t go so far as to say bad but she seems to have very little control over her vibrato. As for acting… well, the part seems to just be “look pretty, sing in a high voice” and she does do both those things. Aaron Tveit is very good, despite having a fairly small part. Samantha Barks is amazing. Daniel Huttlestone is a scene-stealer. Cohen and Carter (reunited after Sweeney Todd) are grotesque comic relief… that works better than you’d think in an otherwise pretty serious movie. Anne Hathaway is the one who will probably walk away from this movie with an Oscar nomination… and probably and Oscar. Hell, her scenes seem practically designed as a “for your consideration” reel (which, again, explains the otherwise distracting close-ups).

The movie is long. Very long. I really don’t think there’s much in the film that should have been cut or anything, it’s just that in the last third of the movie you do become aware of just how long you have been in the theater seat. I would not advise drinking much before or during this movie. My family pointed out that seeing this show on the stage we would have gotten an intermission. This is true. Movies used to have intermissions if they were very long. I don’t think bringing that back would be such a bad thing, especially in a movie as theatrical as this one. Anyway, overall I would say the movie is very good. It’s epic and moving. The songs are good. Some of are quite catchy even. (Actually all through the “Master of the House” scene I kept flashing back to that episode of Seinfeld where George had that song stuck in his head and couldn’t stop singing it… I watch too much TV.) It’s not a perfect film but I feel what’s good about it substantially outweighs what is bad. But don’t take my word for it, check it out for yourself.

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