Les Miserables – movie review

Have you heard there’s a film version of “Les Misérables”?

Just kidding; of course you have. For the last several months the media bombardment preceding the Christmas day opening of this movie musical has been unprecedented.

More than 25 years after its premiere, including two stints on Broadway, countless national tours, two filmed concerts and millions of satisfied customers, “Les Miz” keeps rolling along with no end in sight.

Now, the mega-hit musical by Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alan Boublil (English libretto by Herbert Kretzmer) has reached cinemas by way of producer Cameron Mackintosh -  with four Tony Awards, including three best musical awards for the original Broadway runs of Cats, Phantom of the Opera and Les Misérables, arguably the most financially successful theatre producer ever – and Oscar winning director (“The King’s Speech”) Tom Hooper.

Hugh Jackman and Anne Hathaway (Photo: Universal Pictures)

Hugh Jackman and Anne Hathaway (Photo: Universal Pictures)

Mackintosh assembled a stellar star-powered cast. Some may have seemed like sure bets, while others leaned towards the risky.

Hugh Jackman – equally at home on the musical stage and in big ticket action movies – was cast as the protagonist Jean Valjean.

Russell Crowe, a fellow Australian best known for his dramatic film work and less for his singing, was cast as Javert, Valjean’s relentless pursuer. A veteran of light weight films, including the film musical “Mamma Mia,” Amanda Seyfried was given the ingénue role of Cosette. The multi-award nominated Anne Hathaway accepted the call to play Cosette’s tragic mother, Fantine. Hathaway is known as an actress equally adept at both comic and dramatic roles; she has not been known as a singer up to now.

Audiences have seen the triple monikered pair of Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter in the film adaptation of “Sweeney Todd.” As recognizable character actors, it was an easy pick to cast them as the comically evil Thénardiers. Eddie Redmayne, a young British actor with a handful of film and television credits, was handed the role of the heroic Marius. And for the love-sick waif, Eponine, the virtually unknown Samantha Barks beat out pop idol Taylor Swift and stage and screen star Scarlett Johansson.

The results, as seen by a record number of patrons on Christmas day, are very good indeed. That is not to say it is the greatest movie musical or the best film of the year, in spite of tweets and Facebook statuses that claim otherwise.

The film matches its pre-opening hype and will no doubt satisfy many fans of the piece and, most likely, will win over audiences who may be new to the epic story of Jean Valjean’s quest for freedom and redemption.

Much has been made of the “live singing” in the film. Instead of Hooper filming his actors miming their vocals to pre-recorded tracks, the performers were filmed as they sang on set, using live accompaniment that was later dubbed in with full orchestra. Hooper’s innovation allows for more immediacy and honest acting. For me, the technique worked and was certainly more satisfying than the often over produced (and sometimes overdubbed) sound from many movie musicals. I liked the raw nature of the singing and Jackman, Hathaway, Seyfried, and Redmayne all handled the demands of the score and their acting duties beautifully.

Jackman, as Valjean, is the heart and soul of the film and succeeds in every scene. His rendition of Valjean’s signature moments – “Soliloquy,” “Who Am I?” and “Bring Him Home” – grow out of very personal moments, woven organically from speech to singing. The score contains a new song for Valjean, “Suddenly,” which surely will seal the deal of multiple award nominations that are sure to follow.

As the factory worker and single mother, Fantine, Hathaway’s performance is every bit the equal to Jackman’s Valjean. After reluctantly becoming a prostitute to earn money to care for her daughter Cosette, Fantine rises from her bed to pour out her heart in “I Dreamed a Dream.” Hathaway disappears into the character and lets the song emanate from every nerve and pore.

Crowe is less successful in the singing department, but only when you compare him to the usual rich, intense baritones in stage productions. (Andrew Varela, the current Javert on the national tour, and Philip Quast, in the 10th anniversary concert recording, are my personal favorites.) Crowe’s garage-band groan of a voice hits the right notes, but it’s not always a pleasant sound. As an actor, Crowe’s Javert is more successful. He brings his ferocious scowl to new heights and holds his own against Jackman’s virtuous Valjean.

As for the young love triangle, Seyfried, Redmayne and Barks make a lovely trio. Redmayne, in a Romeo-like, love-at-first-sight role, helps the audience believe Marius could really be as naïve as he appears. Seyfried, as Cosette, the adopted daughter of Valjean, is the object of Marius’ immediate affections. Cosette is one of those roles that doesn’t ask a lot of the performer other than to look and sing pretty, and stand by while her man goes off to fight for what is right. Seyfried gets the job done.

Barks will likely gain a share of the buzz from “Les Misérables,” since this is her first film – other than appearing as Eponine in Les Misérables in Concert: The 25th Anniversary filmed at London’s O2 Arena. Barks has earthy good looks, a natural presence onscreen and certainly sings well. Her unrequited love for Marius is confessed in one of the show’s most familiar songs, “On My Own,” performed in the pouring rain as she wanders through the streets of Paris – a memorable image and performance and image.

The children of “Les Misérables” were among the most pleasant surprises from the two hour and 40 minute film. As young Cosette, Isabelle Allen – the one staring at you from the posters and ads – is the best kind of child actor: she just “is.” We see her sweeping the floors of a dark and dingy tavern, singing “Castle on a Cloud,” and we are immediately captivated by her simplicity and those piercing blue eyes.

Another young performer nearly steals the middle of the film. As the wily street urchin Gavroche who assists the student rebellion against the corrupt monarchy, Daniel Huttlestone is all scruffy charm as the little French terrier – with the thick Cockney accent. Mixed dialects aside, Huttlestone should have as long a career in film or on stage as he wishes.

The onstage Les Miz has often been criticized for holes in the plot; in the film, many of these holes are successfully patched up by Hooper and his writers – the original team of Boublil, Schönberg, Kretzmer, joined by screenwriter William Nicholson.

Gavroche’s character gets an expanded role that has a bigger pay-off when (spoiler alert) he is killed during an attack on the barricade.  Other sections made clearer in the film include the brutality of Valjean’s prison labor; his pivotal visit with the kindly Bishop of Digne (Colm Wilkinson); Fantine’s descent into prostitution and her death; and the seedy world of the Thenardiers. Javert’s obsession with Valjean has always been easy to follow, but now so is the somewhat muddy subplot of students and common folk rebelling against the establishment (often misidentified as the French Revolution).

Hooper’s film is also grounded in a very real world. Cinematographer Danny Cohen, who partnered with Hooper for “The King’s Speech” shows us the streets are dirty, the forests are primeval; people sweat and bleed. It is a gritty world, which makes the high stakes much more believable. When characters die – especially Javert’s suicide scene – you might even turn away. For an old sap like me, Hooper’s ending offers a big pay-off. If you hadn’t shed a tear throughout the movie, that ending may be the reason you brought those tissues along or you wish you had.

So we have the musical score performed with equal parts acting and singing that succeeds most of the time. We have a stellar cast who bring excitement and immediacy to their onscreen roles. The performers and performances are all working within a clarified screenplay to make an even stronger case for the story. So far, so good, right?

A cursory glance into the social media world and the Twitter-sphere will no doubt find a divided public. Fans who describe “Les Misérables” as “amazing,” “breathtaking” and “magnificent” seem to be winning out over those who choose phrases like “good attempt” and “worst directed big budget feature.”

Les Misérables
Recommended

2 hours, 37 minutes
Rated PG-13 – Musical/Drama

Released nationwide.
Check your local listings for availability and showtimes.

I agree that “Les Misérables” is a fine film adaptation of the musical. But it was difficult for me to love all of it due to that hallmark of the cinematic art: the close-up. Maybe I should say its overuse.

I am all for close shots of an actor – to see those tiny changes in human emotion, and to watch facial expressions register what words cannot express. The actors and actresses of “Les Misérables” have a lot to register. But they also sing. Many close-ups, especially in the first half of the film, seem to backfire, when Hooper relied too much on close-ups when a medium shot would do. There were songs that were nearly 80 to 90 percent shot right up against the performer’s face – “Soliloquy,” and “I Dreamed a Dream.” Perhaps intimacy was the goal, but those big emotional moments seemed almost claustrophobic as the performers laid bare their souls in song.

Jackman, Hathaway and the rest of the “Les Misérables” cast, with Mackintosh’s careful stewardship and Hooper’s strength in clarifying parts of the story, seem to have a blockbuster film on their hands. The work of the collaborators Schonberg, Boublil and Kretzmer – with a huge nod to Victor Hugo’s original novel – will now live on beyond the stage as what looks to be one of the most successful movie musicals of all time.

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