Review: Les Miserables

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Les Miserables (2012)

Director: Tom Hooper

Starring: Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, Anne Hathaway, Eddie Redmayne, Amanda Seyfried, Samantha Barks 

3 1/2 out of 5 stars

It was the mid eighties and I was holding court at a college theater party, most likely arguing the merits of the latest offering from Andrew Lloyd Webber, (I know, but my tastes have improved since then), when one of my fellow actors at the party ceremoniously placed a shinny brand new piece of vinyl onto the turntable, “I just saw this show in London, I was blown away!”, at that moment a blast of epic, Wagner meets Elton John thundered from the speakers, “Look Down, Look Down, don’t look ’em in the eye….”, it was the Original London Cast Recording of  Les Miserables and I was immediately hooked and obsessed. A few years later, the show opened on Broadway with much fanfare and unprecedented advance ticket sales and my girlfriend at the time surprised me, on my birthday, by taking me to see the show on the Great White Way, to this day it’s easily the best birthday present I’ve ever received and, as a result of my good fortune, I have been bragging for over two decades, “Les Miz, oh yeah, saw the original cast on Broadway…before it won all those Tony’s.” As the years have passed I’ve seen Les Miz on stage more than any other musical I can think of and, in my actor days, I often performed a few of the songs from the score in cabaret and also at auditions.

For the last 20 years, every single time Hollywood granted a greenlight for a big screen adaptation of a Broadway musical my response was always the same, “Fine, but why haven’t they filmed Les Miz yet?”

Well, here we are, finally, a big fat Christmas present, 20+ years in the making! 

Why is all of this important? Well, it’s important I think for you to know that my expectations were much higher than most and my perspective may be a little clouded, particularly from a technical aspect. With this is mind, let’s have at it!

First, I didn’t love the film Les Miserables, not yet anyway. Given my history with the stage version, I almost feel like I need to see the film a second time to actually give it a fair assessment. So, keep in mind, these are my first impressions. 

Hugh Jackman is Jean Valjean and, given the current collection of A-listers available, was the only realistic choice.

Many have said Jackman was born to play this role and I can’t argue with that statement, on film anyway.

The actor’s background on the stage is well known, long before he strapped on the metal claws for Wolverine he was a well established musical theater star in Australia, where he is best remembered for the roles of Gaston in Beauty & the Beast,  Joe Gillis in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Sunset Boulevard and Curly in Oklahoma. Interestingly enough, Jackman recently mentioned in an interview that he was never cast in the stage version of Les Miserables. How can this be? He was NEVER offered the very role that will no doubt lead to his first Oscar nomination and possible win? Yep and, guess what? They were right not to cast him in the stage version. Jean Valjean is a high baritone  role, (or bari-tenor in some circles), and though this fact has never really stopped standard baritones from hurting themselves singing the character’s material, it’s a basic reality that, if the demands of the role don’t fit comfortably into your vocal range, eight shows a week is never going to be a possibility, (take this from someone who hurt himself on more than one occasion with similar material). The role Jackman may have been best suited for- on stage anyway- would have been Javert, though I suspect the casting folks most likely considered him too “handsome” for the part. Given his age and considering his youth at the time, he may have also been a better fit for Enjorlas, the young rebel leader, but again, never Valjean for 8 shows a week.

From beginning to end, Jackman’s Valjean is a tortured, haunted soul and the power of his performance lives in his eyes, (which, on stage, would have never made it past the second row). It is a performance for the ages and one that will be remembered, cherished and debated for many years to come. 

The debate will center around Jackman’s performance of what many consider to be Valjean’s signature song, “Bring Him Home”, traditionally offered as a quiet prayer in the middle of the night as the young rebels lie sleeping mere feet away. Jackman hits the notes, no question about it, but his inability to control the higher part of his register turns what was originally conceived as an intimate, reflective moment into an oddly impassioned bellow and, as a result, robs the number of it’s heart and poignancy. In live performance, “Bring Him Home”, is considered a showstopper, something I have witnessed first hand on several occasions. Sadly, Jackman’s rendition is fine but it is most definitely not what I suspect true Les Miz fans were hoping for and will disappoint as many as it satisfies. American’s who are non-singers have a long history of wrongly believing that belting loud high notes are the sign of a true vocal talent, whereas singers, and musicians who understand their instrument know it really is all about control. Jackman’s “Bring Him Home” convinced me the actor has no falsetto, which when we’re talking about singing the role of Jean Valjean, is more than a bit of a problem. As an actor Jackman blew me away but, as a singer, not quite as much, particularly on his mildly unappealing and very nasal upper register.

All of this being said, when Jackman’s Valjean rips up his papers while marching out of the church, roaring, “..Another story must begin!”, my entire body was consumed with a wave of goose bumps the likes of which I can’t ever remember experiencing while watching a movie. I willing admit, it was a misty moment for yours truly. 

In a perfect world, Jackman would have been able to borrow some falsetto from Eddie Redmayne’s lover/ terrorist Marius, who relied on this vocal choice a little too often for my taste and- for a few moments anyway- put me in mind of Kermit the Frog going through puberty. Mind you, I enjoyed much of the actor’s performance but, again, I wouldn’t go as far as to say I loved it. 

Much has been made about Anne Hathaway’s performance as Fantine, the one character who really brings home the title of the musical. Many of the characters in Victor Hugo’s classic novel are unhappy, but no one is more miserable than the woman who once “Dreamed a Dream”.

Does Hathaway deliver the Best Supporting Actress performance of the year in this flick? You can take it to the bank, I might even go as far as to say it’s one of the most impressive performances I’ve seen in several years. I was also more than pleased to discover the version of Fantine’s sad ballad we have been watching in teasers and trailers for the last several months is not the same version featured in the film, ( in the trailer you’ll note the line, “but life has killed A dream I dreamed”, in the film it is the original lyric, “but life has killed THE dream I dreamed”, the line coupled with the camera shots indicate the one featured in the trailer is a completely different take and may have simply been a rough edit to get the first preview out on schedule).

Fantine’s “I Dreamed a Dream” is one of several moments where director Tom Hooper’s talents truly shine, he wisely sets the camera, stays in tight and simply lets the actress and the song do their work. Strange as it may seem, the moment put me in mind of Sinead O’Connor’s music video for “Nothing Compares to You”, which I still believe is one of the most brilliant music videos ever made. Hooper is a director who understands the beauty of simplicity and, when Anne accepts her Oscar, he’s the first person she will need to thank. 

I’ve read too many reviews implying Russell Crowe’s Javert is the weak link in an otherwise solid chain, to this I offer a simple, bullshit. First, the chain is not as solid as I would like it to have been, secondly, the only performance that really survives the nearly three hour running time without eliciting a wince or two, is Hathaway, and you might argue that fact is due, at least in part, to her limited amount of screen time.

I actually enjoyed Crowe’s take on Valjean’s rabid parole officer, quite a bit. Too often in other film adaptations of the classic novel and also on stage, I have seen Javert played as a one note villain, a simple approach always made by actors making safe and easy choices. Javert is the antagonist of the piece, no question about it, but in Crowe’s very capable hands, he is a man lost in an inner struggle between what’s right and…what’s right, which makes his final moments, and his ultimate choice near the end, more than logical. Does Crowe hit all the notes? Sure. Are they all pretty? No, nor do they need to be. 

As for the revisions to the musical’s original text, unlike any other musical I have ever seen transferred to the screen, the choices made by Hooper and his screenwriter William Nicholson are nothing short of brilliant and they both deserve very high praise for accomplishing something that seems to evade too many filmmakers working from previously established material. 

Samantha Barks as the love forsaken, (and still underwritten) Eponine, delivers a sweet, (if all too brief), performance as does Amanda Seyfried, who brings new depth to the role of Cosette, a character, (also underwritten), who has always been a bit of a yawn for me in the stage version of the popular show.

Referencing once more previous reviews I have read, Sasha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter, for the record, are NOT repeating the same performances they gave in Sweeney Todd. To those critics who have implied as much I say, once again, bullshit. Honestly, if you really believe these performances are in any way similar, outside of the fact that they both happen to be singing on the big screen, you’re an idiot. I can’t imagine two actors better suited to play the diabolical Thenardier duo and I think both Cohen and Carter nailed it. 

Alan Parker, best known for his films, Fame, Pink Floyd’s The Wall and The Commitments was originally on board to direct the big screen version of Les Miserables, a prospect that once offered great hope for fans of both film and the stage musical. Lucky for us, he chose instead to make Evita with Madonna and proved he actually wasn’t the man we really wanted for this job. If you think you have problems with any of the casting of this film, consider what the guy who very nearly completely miscast Andrew Lloyd Webber’s best musical to date would have done with it, I have to believe we dodged a big bullet with this one, (he would have definitely given you the Taylor Swift casting so many of you seemed to fear).

Fortunately for us, the directing job fell to Tom Hooper who, fresh off his much deserved Oscar win for The King’s Speech and his Emmy Sweep for the excellent John Adams miniseries he gave HBO, announced his dream project was the film adaptation of this beloved Broadway musical. I can nit pick and quibble about a shot here or a fade there but, for the most part, Hooper delivers in a major way. It is a true testament to this man’s abilities that even for someone like myself, who knows this musical backwards and forwards and had impossibly high expectations going in, I found myself reaching for the tissues more than once. Trust me, no one was more surprised by this fact than me, I really thought I was way too critical and jaded to be moved in this way, by this material, any longer, especially after my many trips to the barricades throughout the years. 

I laughed, I cried, I sighed and, yes, I winced a few times as well. 

John Caird and Trevor Nunn, the directors of the original stage production, have said this is a musical “about God”, make no mistake, it most definitely is, which is why I believe some of the more negative reviews published recently are coming from those critics who have a problem with this seemingly old fashioned idea, I suspect these are the same writers who cringe anytime the higher power is ever presented in a positive light on film. 

Les Miserables has always been, and will always be, a piece not only for those with open minds but also for those with open hearts. This would be the primary reason I have always loved this musical, it’s also the same reason this show will always have it’s detractors. Put simply, Les Miserables on screen delivers a profound experience in very much the same way it did on stage, but only if you are open to it.

Unfold your arms, open your mind and your heart and enjoy.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m heading back to the multiplex for my second look.

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