You have to wonder. Was Oscar-winning director Tom Hooper a little intimidated when he set out to make his latest movie? After all, bringing Broadway musicals to the screen is risky business. And, in tackling Les Misérables, Hooper was taking on arguably the world’s most beloved musical.
Having recently celebrated its twenty-fifth anniversary (tune in to any PBS pledge drive and you might catch the star-studded concert celebration), Les Misérables is the longest-running musical in London’s West End. It’s estimated that more than 60 million people have seen the show in 291 cities in 42 countries worldwide, and it’s been translated into 21 different languages.
On this side of the pond, Les Mis was a Broadway phenomenon before it even opened. To say that an audience leaves the theater humming is to praise its musical score. Les Mis took this a step further. In fact, the London cast album sold so well in the U.S. that theater pundits noted that the audience was going into the theater humming. I myself began my relationship with Les Mis back in 1987, when I attended the Actors Fund benefit performance with my family and a very temporary boyfriend. Suffice it to say, my love affair with the musical has lasted much longer.
So, in order to tackle such mythic material, Hooper assembled what was described as a “dream cast.” As Jean Valjean, Hugh Jackman works his heart out. He is earnest and victimized and saintly to the point of being Christlike (a bit too much so, if you ask me). His acting is superb, although I was disappointed with some of his vocals. In particular, the beautiful hymn “Bring Him Home” felt forced and too screechy. I’m sorry, but I can’t help being a Les Mis purist in this case. He is a thing of beauty, but Hugh Jackman will never be Colm Wilkinson, the original Valjean. Never.
As the hopeless factory girl turned tuberculous prostitute, Anne Hathaway has never looked so bad—or sounded so good. Her performance is truly pathetic. Not in the vernacular sense, but as one that inspires great pathos. Her Fantine is simply . . . well . . . miserable. I hope Ms. Hathaway has a big mantelpiece. The lady’s going to be bringing home some awards this year. (As will Jackman, no doubt.)
So far, so good. But I regret to report that, as the driven-to-obsession Inspector Javert, Russell Crowe simply doesn’t hold up his end of the bargain. His vocals are lackluster, missing the conviction necessary to bring Valjean’s antagonist to life. He sounds too contemporary and casual, and even his acting, which I typically admire, feels uneventful. The movie desperately needs a more powerful Javert.
Young lovers Cosette and Marius are all dewy youth and misty romance. Amanda Seyfried is lovely to look at, and I give her credit for hitting the high notes, albeit a bit too quickly. But, it’s fairly clear that she’s in over her head. The movie’s nicest surprise is Eddie Redmayne. Marius can be a fairly thankless role (I’ve always felt him to be a bit of a sap), but Redmayne instills the role with a quiet strength. His grieving rendition of “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables” was nearly flawless, and brought me to tears.
Samantha Barks, playing Eponine, the streetwise heroine, was overlooked by the movie’s publicity machine. This seems unfair, given that Eponine is a critical character and that Barks played her on stage and in the celebrated anniversary concert. Nevertheless, she is the real deal. When she performs one of the show’s most heartbreaking ballads, “On My Own,” she seems to be telling her castmates to step aside and see how it’s done.
As the Thénardiers, Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter brought some much-appreciated comic relief to the otherwise melancholy material. A highlight was Baron Cohen’s inability to remember the name of his ward:
“How can we speak of debt, let’s not haggle for daring Colette . . . uh . . . Cosette.”
However, their scenes had a bit too much stage business going on. I wondered why Thénardier was the only character with a French accent. And, without giving too much away, Bonham Carter seemed to be tapping into her previous role as Sweeney Todd’s Mrs. Lovett as she made sausages for her guests.
(As an aside, am I the only middle-aged movie viewer distressed by Bonham Carter’s recent cinematic fall from grace? What happened to the plucky heroine of A Room With a View and Howards End? She seems to be making a new career as a hag. What’s next? Miss Havisham. Actually, that is what’s next. Poor Helena!)
Some of the secondary characters were terrific—chosen, no doubt, for their musical-theater ability and not (as Crowe must have been) for star power (didn’t anyone ask him to sing before he was cast?). Among them are Aaron Tveit’s doomed revolutionary Enjorlas, petit powerhouse Daniel Huttlestone as street urchin Gavroche, Isabelle Allen as adorable young Cosette. And, certainement, the theatrical love of my life, Colm Wilkinson himself, as the Bishop of Digne.
The new movie’s marketing team has done a tremendous job tapping into the power of social media. One aspect of the film that has received an inordinate amount of attention is the fact that all of the vocals were done live on set, not prerecorded in a studio. “This has never been done before,” Hathaway assures us in the behind-the-scenes “First Look” released online three months ago.
Did Hooper regret having crowed so much about this when he went in for final edits? Would he have rerecorded “Bring Him Home” in a key better suited to Jackman’s voice? Would he have taken advantage of audio technology to boost the power of Seyfried’s? Who knows?
As if to prove that we are watching live singing, nearly every song is shot in one- or two-shot extreme close-ups. This was a bit much and at times got in the way of the song itself. I would have preferred to get lost in the music, rather than wonder . . . How did they get Hugh Jackman’s eyes to look like that? When was the last time Eddie Redmayne shaved? When was the last time Anne Hathaway ate?
For me, the movie was most successful when Hooper chose to expand rather than limit our vision: the barricade, the streets of Paris, the prisoners hauling an overturned ship into dry dock. He also added some small subplots that enhanced the story, without sacrificing any of the musical’s beloved material.
Leaving Les Misérables, I felt as though I myself had fought—and lost—at the barricade. I was exhausted. But the movie is well worth seeing for the glorious score and several tremendous if uneven performances. I may have been worn out, but I left the theater . . . you guessed it . . . humming.