So after you win an Academy Award for the King’s Speech, what do you do? If you’re Tom Hooper apparently you take on the world’s most beloved musical Les Miserables. The stage version, with music and lyrics by Claude-Michel Schonberg, Alain Boublil, Jean-Marc Natel and Herbert Kretzmer seems to have run for time immemorial, based on the sweeping, epic, and very depressing novel by Victor Hugo. Every time you’ve seen it on the stage though, you’ve been at a remove, no matter where you sit, you’re not right there. Tom Hooper’s solution was to shoot almost everyone in a shallow focus close-up so you can see the actors’ performances (they had to sing for every take!).
The epic tale follows two men, Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman), a prisoner, 24601, who is released on parole after 19 years for stealing a loaf of bread, and the man who pursues him when he breaks his parole, Inspector Javert (Russell Crowe). As the years pass, the two become swept up in events and people. Valjean, takes on the persona of a mayor, after being saved from prison again by a Bishop, played by a name long associated with Les Mis… Colm Wilkinson.
He allows Fantine (Anne Hathaway) to be fired from his factory, she’s cast on the street to try to scratch out a living to raise money for her sick child, selling her hair and her body. As Javert closes in, Valjean realizes he’s wronged her, and agrees to take her child into his keeping and flees as she dies.
Then as the two circle one another again years later, Valjean is raising Cosette (Amanda Seyfried) who, on the eve if an ill-fated revolution, falls in love with Marius (Eddie Redmayne) much to the heartbreak of one of my favorite characters Eponine (Samantha Barks, who has also portrayed the character on stage, and is amazing in her big screen debut).
It is an epic story, with tons of other characters running in an out of it, including little Gavroche (Daniel Huttlestone – who could have stolen the film from everyone in it if he’d been permitted to have all of his moments like in the stage version), the Thenardiers (Sacha Baron Cohen – meh and Helena Bonham Carter who seemed to be having a pretty good time).
That said, the film may not garner any new fans of the musical, as most of the people who will be going to see it, will be the ones who love the musical. As such, there are probably going to be a lot of divided opinions on it. I certainly didn’t love it, nor did I hate it, it settles right smack dab in the middle. I liked it. But it is by no means the best version that I’ve seen or heard.
And why does everyone in France speak like they’re from the UK?
There are beautiful moments in the film, little Cosette (Isabelle Allen – amazing and adorable!) whispering “Cosette, I love you very much” to her doll in Castle On A Cloud instead of singing it, heart-rending. Russel Crowe striding the edge of the rooftop in Stars (I quite like his version), a movement and moment deliberately echoed during the film’s climax. Hugh Jackman in tears in What Have I Done? The stirring renditions of Do You Hear The People Sing? Any scene featuring Garvoche, he steals it all, especially his introduction as he’s running and riding carriages about the town. Fantine’s I Dreamed A Dream. Eponine walking in the rain singing On My Own (my favorite song and moment in any version – we’ve all been in that position).
The fight between Javert and Valjean in Confrontation, just doesn’t work, Javert’s plunge seems like a miss, and while I know why Javert did it, giving his medal to Garvoche seemed cheap, you know the little scamp would refuse it.
The thing I really didn’t care for was the use of the shallow-focus close-up whenever one of the characters sang (which is always), it’s almost trying to deny the epic scale of the thing by burning it down to little intimate moments, but those moments aren’t as important to you if you aren’t involved in everything that is going on around the characters.
The revolutionary backdrop is just as important as the quiet moments that punctuate it, and that idea seems to have been completely missed.
I get that not everything in the stage version could make its way into the film, but I feel that it cost the film to leave them out. It ends up feeling like a highlight reel with some of the best highlights left out.
Now, let’s clarify again, I didn’t hate it. But I really didn’t love it.
There are moments that break your heart in the stage version, the shattering conclusion to Garvoche’s Little People, Eponine and Marius sharing a moment finally in A Little Fall of Rain, the death of Enjorlas (Aaron Tveit), that seemed to simply lack the emotional punch need in the film version. Even running at two and a half hours, these characters aren’t given their due, allowing you to feel for them, instead, you’re simply watching a body count pile up for people you know you should care about, but aren’t sure why.
And that to me, is too bad, because it’s a great cast, all of the leads have done things I love, and it seemed like a sure fit, but in the end, it made me want to go out and see the stage version again, and on my way home, I put on the Complete Symphonic Recording, only to grumble over all the material that was excluded from the film.
And while I have been wandering about humming and singing songs from it ever since, it’s from the stage version playing in my head and not the film. It just wasn’t epic enough, which is funny, considering the size of the screen I saw it on…
The film is a promise kept, but only in the barest way possible, it’s a kiss on the cheek as opposed to the lips, a whisper of love, instead of a joyous heart-filling shout.