I’ve only recently developed a kind of love for musical theater, having had very little exposure throughout most of my life but having been given a great deal of exposure in the recent years through friends in the theater community. However, you’d kind of have to live out in the middle of a third world country with almost no exposure to popular culture in order to miss having heard at least a few songs if not the entire soundtrack of “Les Miserable”, a musical based on the paperweight novel by Victor Hugo. It’s not the first, last, or most faithful adaptation of the source material but it is probably the most successful and has played throughout the world to sold-out audiences. It’s a masterpiece, it’s critically acclaimed, and it’s credited (along with “Cats” and “Phantom of the Opera”) with bringing big musicals back to prominence during the Broadway renaissance of the 80’s. And while I’m familiar with the music, the rough outline of the story, and the characters, I have never actually seen the show in its’ entirety.
Adapting a stage musical to screen production comes with a great many challenges, especially a production as popular and well known as Les Mis. Casting, set design, and everything else along the way is going to face severe scrutiny from the shows fans and you also have to utilize a wholly different medium to its best advantages. Previous film productions like “Phantom of the Opera” faced similar scrutiny and never really achieved the kind of success seen by the original production. Time will tell whether Les Mis will find a bigger audience, but it did have a higher budget and much more production than the previously mentioned show. I’ll just offer my thoughts on the show…
Okay, so that’s a little short and non-descript. Let me just state that putting the majority of the show across the shoulders of Hugh Jackman in the central role was a terrific decision on the part of casting. Jackmans’ voice is strong, his acting is top notch, and he’s someone the audience can cheer, feel, and understand. It’s easy to see why many of the actors were chosen for their roles, including a few Broadway cast reprisals. But I have to give an amazing amount of credit to Anne Hathaway for her portrayal of Fontaine. “I Dreamed a Dream” is an amazing song on its’ own, but Hathaway takes the song to a new level for me. The camera remains fixed on her throughout the rendition, never cutting to a new angle or using some trick in editing to cover or stylize the performance… it’s honestly raw and brutal and heart-wrenching to see her break down throughout the song, to watch her find the character in a way that I can’t help but admire.
Ah, but you hear a but in there somewhere, don’t you? Okay… while I loved the movie, I would be remiss if I didn’t point out the few things that took away from the show for me. There were two major issues for me so let me address them.
Along with every other person who is criticizing this movie… Russell Crowe falls short on several occasions. Inspector Javier is supposed to have a voice that is strong and certain, but when he is singing across from the powerful Jackman, Crowe’s voice seems less than adequate. He does manage to carry his solos quite well and the big one near the end is powerful and fully captures the moment so he’s not as bad as everyone claims. So if you’re letting reviewers convince you to stay away due to this performance, don’t… Crowe is reasonably acceptable and matches Jackman so far as screen presence as acting. His voice isn’t horrible, it just isn’t what one expects from the character he is playing.
The second issue may take some more getting used to… there are some amazing shots in this film with regards to cinematography. Sweeping set design, beautiful architecture, and flawless costuming… most of which will be missed if you don’t have a quick eye because the director’s vision included keeping the camera about two feet away from every single performer. We are close enough to each and every performer to take in every bubble of snot in their nose, to count every wrinkle on their face, and to note every single edit from one angle to another. In some shots, this technique works… the aforementioned solo with Fontaine, Marius’ solo in “Empty Chairs and Empty Tables”, and a few other songs. But when you have a huge ensemble piece like “Lovely Ladies”, the technique falls apart as we rapidly cut from a focus on Fontaine to the featured bits and pieces of random ladies on the street. It’s no more blaringly a miss with regards to “Master of the House”. It feels like some of the songs are sung AT us. This, however, was obviously an artistic decision and I may simply be of a different taste from most audiences.
All in all, I really loved the movie and encourage audiences to give it a shot.
4 out of 5.