The first time I saw Les Miserables on Broadway I was 13. I sat in the front row, dead center, and watched specks of spit fly from Jean Valjean as he sang “Who Am I” and jumped as the lovely ladies reached off the edge of the stage as though they would drag me up onto it and trembled as Epinine died in Marius’ arms on the barricade. Since that first Les Mis experience, I’ve seen the musical on Broadway 6 more times until they finally took it off Broadway for good. (Please bring it back, please, please!) I’ve read the novel. (yes, unabridged! I teach English, would you expect anything else?) Killed my CDs from continuous listening, and can sing any part pretty much on command. I’ve watched the PBS Les Mis concert til my DVD wore out. And, to complete the cliché, I bought the T-shirt. I am a Les Mis junkie. (We can be a bit possessive about this beloved musical at times, but it’s all in good fun. Usually.) So when I heard they were making a Les Miserables movie that Cameron Mackintosh was producing, to say I was excited would be a supreme understatement.
Sitting in the cinema was like reliving my first Les Mis experience. In a sold-out theater, the only seats left were front row, dead center. I was elated (though my husband was far from it). And my mind is still reeling from the enormity of the experience. I wanted to offer just a few thoughts in response, but at this point, I don’t want to spoil anything for anyone. If you know the story of Les Mis at all, then there’s really nothing I can say that will give away the storyline. However, if you haven’t seen the movie yet, I might recommend that you come back and read the rest of this once you have. And I promise that no matter what I say from here on, the movie is absolutely breath-stealing. You will not regret dropping $10 (or more) and 2 ½ hours of your life on it. No gushing superlative can do it justice because it’s just that good. So go. Watch it. And see you back here once you have--I want to hear your thoughts!
Now, if you’re still reading, either you have seen the movie or you aren’t worried about anything getting spoiled, so here we go. These are some of my observations:
· The opening scene was astounding. That is a scene I was unprepared for. In the musical the opening scene is simply a lead-in to the story of Jean Valjean in prison. In the movie it is epic. A scene of Ben Hur or Gone With the Wind proportions. It is amazing and horrifying all at once. And I loved that that scene opens the movie. Amazing interpretation and vision.
· The vocals were done live. Because the actors actually had music piping in their ear and they sang each scene live, it gave great immediacy to the action. Nothing felt canned or pantomimed. The actors, too, seemed freer to interpret their character and indwell each scene. The gritty was grittier. The tortured was more tortuous. The joyful was sheer elation. The live-performance worked exceptionally well for 99% of the actors. However, because there was no studio to clean up any vocal flaws, there were moments when the vocals fell short of their mark.
· Russell Crowe as Inspector Javert. Since seeing Russell Crowe in L.A. Confidential and Gladiator, I am a loyal Crowe fan. However, this seems to be a situation where they chose to cast a big name over the perfect actor for the part. Russell Crowe is an exceptional actor. And, yes, he’s in a band and can carry a tune. In fact, he has quite a pleasing voice when not straining into the upper reaches of his register. However, Hugo’s character of Javert always seemed to me a sinister and tortured man. He found his only salvation in the law and it failed him. And I didn’t see anything in Russell Crowe’s portrayal of Javert that exuded that inner torture. Additionally, because of the limits of Crowe’s vocal range, there were several climactic moments in the movie (the song “Stars” in particular comes to mind) that fell flat—a missed dramatic opportunity where junkies like myself are sitting on the edge of our seats, waiting for that note to be hit and sustained and the world to stop spinning for a moment while Javert vows to bring Valjean to justice. Unfortunately, in the movie, that moment never came. This is when the live, out-of-the-studio performance did not serve well. (However, had Crowe portrayed Javert a bit more convincingly, I might have been more forgiving of his vocal short-comings.) Although, along with being a Les Mis junkie, I am also a musician and can be a bit particular. My husband, on the other hand, has not a musical bone in his body, and he didn’t mind the absence of sustained, full-voiced, upper-register notes within some of Javert’s scenes. Which again tells me that those making this movie are aiming at the commercial, mass-market. They know us theater geeks will come. They want the rest of the world to show up, too. (I sound cynical…I’m really not. I promise.)
· Fantine as portrayed by Anne Hathaway. Hathaway has such an intensity and a vulnerability that perfectly encapsulates the character of Fantine. Even now my stomach churns thinking about some of her scenes. And Hathaway’s rendition of “I Dreamed a Dream” was spot-on. Stunning. Moving. But this creates a problem which brings me to my next point.
· Hathaway was perfect. What? Okay, hear me out. On stage, Fantine’s storyline is tragic. Sad. Heart-breaking. On screen, Fantine’s storyline is horrifying, disturbing, almost gruesome. Yes, in real-life, it would have been. However, her on-screen story took me so far into the dark that I had trouble pulling myself back out once Valjean steps in and offers salvation for her daughter. Fantine handing over Cosette and Valjean claiming her as his own is supposed to be his “new beginning.” (And Les Mis, after all, is Valjean’s story, not Fantine’s.) But I couldn’t fully feel the glow of that salvation because I was still shrouded in the shadow of Fantine’s fall. Which is due in part to Hathaway doing her job so ridiculously well. But this seems a directorial failing, rather than a failing on Hathaway’s part. I say that because when Valjean goes to get Cosette and we first meet the Thenardiers at the inn and they sing “Master of the House,” it’s supposedly a comic scene. However the Thenardiers (played by Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter) in the movie do not provide enough comic relief. “Master of the House” should segue from the dark of Fantine’s death to comic relief in the inn to the hope and joy of Valjean finding Cosette and beginning a new life. But there was no segue. The director did not direct my eye away from the darkness; I had to do it on my own. And while this is maybe only a slight failing, for me it made my transition out of Fantine's storyline a bit bumpy.
· Hugh Jackman as Jean Valjean. While Jackman has serious musical theater experience, I still had my doubts. And there were a couple moments where I cringed (particularly when he sings “Bring Him Home” over a sleeping Marius on the barricade. Another example of the downside of a live performance). But Jackman was stalwartly convincing from start to finish. In particular, I was drawn in during the song early on, “What Have I Done”. He hooked me there so securely, so completely that even when there were a few weak vocal moments, they didn’t bother me. I was so absorbed in his character. I also loved the new song “Suddenly” that was written for the movie, which Valjean sings as he is trying to leave Paris with Cosette. A beautiful job by Jackman, very touching. I also appreciated that the all-star Jean Valjean who played the role on Broadway and London’s West End for years (Colm[C.T.] Wilkinson) was cast in the role of the priest for the movie. Homage to one of the Les Mis greats, it was a treat to see him perform in the movie after loving him on Broadway.
· Eddie Redmayne as Marius. Marius is the crown jewel of this movie. I felt a twinge of disappointment when Redmayne first appeared on scene. He seemed too boyish. Not strong enough for such a leading role. But then he started to sing. He was brilliant. And, for me, this is a big deal. Because after the barricade falls, Marius must sing my favorite of all favorites, “Empty Chairs and Empty Tables.” And if that doesn’t go down well, then the sour taste in my mouth is near-impossible to get rid of. (Because that is MY song, and if you screw it up, we’re gonna have words. Did I mention we junkies can be a bit possessive?) But, good Lord, Redmayne delivered. It was soaring and agonizing at once. Like Hathaway, Redmayne does his job perfectly. Had I not been in a crowded theater (and had my husband’s hand not been holding firmly to my own because he knows I’m prone to outbursts of enthusiasm in a musical setting), I would have applauded with vigor as the final notes floated away. Brava. In fact, Marius steals the show from Cosette played by Amanda Seyfried. I hate to say it, but Redmayne carried Seyfried (whose performance seemed to me merely adequate…but I digress.) Overall, Redmayne came as a delightful surprise. And it is primarily his performance—okay, along with Hathaway’s and Jackman’s—that would keep bringing me back to the big screen version. But, of course, it is the story and the music that will always remain the compelling factors for me--far more than the actors themselves. Because they do what both story and music are meant to do: transcend.
And, for the record, no, I did not sing along during the movie. I am a considerate theater-attender. But all bets are off when this comes out on DVD and I’m in the seclusion of my own home. (Neighbors, be warned!)
These are only a smattering of thoughts I've collected, but there's so much more that could be said. I’d love to hear your thoughts on the movie, the musical, or all things Les Mis related! (I know I’m not the only Les Mis junkie out there!)