First off, I must tell you I am a Les Mis purist, though not necessarily a fanatic. I’ve read the book. I’ve seen the play on stage three times and performed in it for two separate productions (though neither time a lead … curse you, more talented people!). I’ve been listening to the soundtrack since the late 1980’s, and can literally sing every word from beginning to end, thanks to the release of the Complete Symphonic Recording album in 1989. I am a fan of live theatre, a bigger fan of musical theatre and to me Les Mis is the pinnacle. It’s hard to imagine a musical production that could even come close.
What drew me in at first was the score, shortly followed by the story. I know I’m not alone. So when the movie was announced I was extremely excited about it, but also a little reserved – what if they blew it? It wouldn’t be the first time Hollywood let me down. Clan of the Cave Bear comes to mind. Then the cast was announced, and I was pretty happy. I asked the same question everyone asks:
“Can Russell Crowe sing?” And received the answer everyone seems to give:
“Well, he has a band.”
As if being in a band automatically qualifies a person to sing. Perhaps these folks never heard Keith Richards croon?
In any event, I wasn’t really worried about Russell Crowe. I’m a big fan and could easily imagine Maximus as Javert. As for Wolverine … I mean Hugh Jackman, I was quite pleased. He’s one of those actors you just love to watch in different roles. From X-Men to hosting the Oscars, I figured he’d do just fine. No, for me the only person I was legitimately worried about was Sacha Baron Cohen, who I can only see as Borat, a movie I despised from about 10 minutes in, owing largely to the gigantically unfunny ego of Cohen. People told me not to worry though, and assured me that if I had seen Hugo (I have not) I would reconsider.
All in all though, I couldn’t wait. And when the trailers were released I watched and rewatched them, getting chills each time. When the long trailer with the actors talking about how it was to do a movie that was sung live was released I watched it and I got chills again, and when the 5 clips were released it was Chillzville once more.
Because all my friends know I am such a fan, they all kept asking me if I’d seen the movie yet. Today was finally the day. Here are my thoughts, for what they’re worth. I won’t comment at all on the story. It needs no comment since the story and the score are the reasons for the huge success of the play.
To begin, I call it a success. The 2.5 hours or so seemed to fly by and if it weren’t for the old dude hacking up a lung next to me I would for the most part not have known I was in a theatre full of people. I was completely absorbed. It is well worth the watch and I will be seeing it again for sure. It had all the things I thought it would have, and more. When you consider that I know the story and the score so well, it was not like watching a normal movie for me. It was more like watching a best friend trying something new and exciting and rooting them on. And them kicking ass. But was it perfect? Not really. Then again, perfection is an ideal impossible to achieve by definition. Here are some detailed observations.
First off, if you’re a Les Mis purist like me, I advise you to do what I realized I had to do about 15 minutes in. Don’t expect a recycled version of the play. This is not Les Miserables, the play. It’s a movie. So forgive the inverted lyrics, the parts they removed, and the added songs. And don’t expect big belting Broadway voices in every song. You won’t get them. That’s not a bad thing, because you can still get those by watching the play, or the concert DVD’s or by listening to the soundtrack. It is what it is. A new movie about an old story. It does what movies can do that stage can’t. Like close-ups for example. Lots and lots of close-ups.
The director clearly made a decision that we should become deeply familiar with the complexion of each of the actors. There were so many close close-ups I think they must have saved money on sets in a lot of scenes because all they needed was about 25% of the screen since the rest was taken up by face. We get lots of great shots of Valjean’s drool and Marius’ freckles, not to mention lots and lots of yellow teeth. Except for the leads that is – they all had nice white teeth. Which leads to my next observation:
Beyond yellowed teeth, if there was makeup used I couldn’t see it. Well that’s not exactly true. There was lots of makeup used to make people look in character, dirty or bloody (or shitty – literally), but none to make people look better. And with all those close-ups this was clearly a choice made to lend realism and honesty to the film, which it did. It added to the emotion and also was refreshing.
Then there were the sets and backdrops. They were, to use a seriously overused word these days, Epic. I mean, the movie starts with the convicts hauling a freaking ship into drydock. Are you kidding me! Extremely powerful and sweeping. I did notice that the director has a slight love affair with the Dutch Angle, which to me is unnecessary and injects a bit of cheese into an otherwise visual home run — when Valjean confesses who he is to Marius the Dutch Angle is so severe I couldn’t help but be reminded of the scene in My Cousin Vinny when Ralph Macchio is being interrogated by the sheriff. That aside though the choices for setting were amazing. Javert’s suicide is actually breathtaking. Both majestic and violent. As it should be.
The big scenes were almost all beyond what I expected. Special nod goes to Lovely Ladies and Do You Hear the People Sing, as well as to One Day More (although One Day More kind of makes itself good). I was not as happy with Master of the House as I hoped I would be. I actually thought the best part of that scene was the young Eponine, who is very cute and funny in all the right places.
All in all from a production standpoint it is almost perfect. Take away the Dutch Angles and you’re there, in my opinion. Not that anyone asked me! Nor are they likely to any time soon …
So how about the performances? Well, I’ll take a look one by one, starting with the strongest, and then in no particular order because I can’t really rank them after that. Everyone is so good.
Anne Hathaway as Fantine. My goodness she is brilliant. Her voice, her acting, her presence. I could find no flaw. I’ve heard better versions of I Dreamed a Dream maybe (Idina Menzel comes to mind), but I can’t imagine seeing a better version. She doesn’t just sing it, she becomes it. It is riveting. I would watch it again and again, if only just to take notes on how to take an audience in using more than just your voice in a song.
Colm Wilkinson as the Bishop of Digne. He’s Colm Wilkinson for heaven’s sake! He’s perfect just by being him. I smiled all the way through his performance and when he showed up at the end for the harmonies after Valjean dies (nice touch by the way), I was struck through with chills. Colm is my homie. If he ever met me, I’m sure he’d agree. Maybe he’d recognize me from the 4 times I’ve seen him in concert? Or maybe not …
Hugh Jackman as Valjean. I totally love Hugh. He’s like the perfect dude (and there was only one time when I thought I saw some adamantium poking out). That said, he is not perfect. He is really, really good, but there are parts where I was disappointed. Only a few, and maybe they are minor, but they are there. For example, he has a habit of throwing words away while singing as though he can’t bear to say them. It works once or twice, but he does it way too often. As for his singing, it is very good, but he makes some choices, especially in Bring Him Home, which don’t need to be made. I get that he is acting first, singing second, but honestly some of those songs are the acting, and Bring Him Home is one of them. I would have loved to hear a more pure falsetto, which I began to suspect maybe he didn’t have, until I did hear him use it at the end of the movie when Valjean is dying.
Russell Crowe as Javert. Poor Russell. He had a lot to live up to. Javert is my favourite role and the one I would most like to play (damn you, more talented people!). Did he live all the way up? Well, yes and no. Yes, in that he definitely commands attention, as Javert should. Maximus didn’t win the hearts of Rome by accident. No, in that while he does have a pretty pleasant voice, and most certainly can carry a tune, he either lacks the power or someone told him not to use it. Javert is not supposed to be tender. I actually laughed a bit because at the end of Stars and again at the end of Soliloquiy (Javert’s Suicide) when he’s meant to hit the most powerful notes, the camera pulls up and away at dramatic speed so that his voice trails off when it is supposed to crescendo. It’s like the director thought he could trick us into thinking that since we could still hear him from far away that he must have been singing pretty powerfully. Still, I rank the performance very high. It just would have been nice if Crowe sounded a bit more Javerty (which is officially a new adjective).
Sacha Baron Cohen as Thenardier. Okay. I’m sure many will disagree with me (my wife and son, to name two), but I was really let down with this one. Perhaps it is my prejudice, but I really think that while he has his moments, he is far too egotistical for the role. Thenardier is supposed to be over the top it’s true. But he’s supposed to be part of the story, not above it. There are times when I definitely feel like Cohen is grinning at the camera, if only with his eyes. I also wonder why, in a movie set in France, Thenardier is the only one with a French accent? We all know that in the play everyone strangely has British accents, and so it is in the movie (a Scot or two for good measure) … except for Thenardier. What’s up with that? It’s weird.
Helena Bonham Carter as Madame Thenardier. So, as much as Cohen let me down Carter delivered. Holy smokes is she good! She is subtle when needed, and crass when she should be. My only small criticism is that there are times I find her too pretty to be a Thenardier. They do what they can with the makeup for her to make her look bad, but it is hopeless. Every Mme Thenardier I’ve seen on stage (except my good friend Deena! Who also suffers from being too pretty …) has been made out to be awful. Carter is amazing but not awful. If that makes sense?
Eddie Redmayne as Marius. My wife said he sounds like Kermit the Frog when he sings. I hear what she means but I don’t mind. He does have a tendency to get a bit nasal but he can sing the hell out of me so who am I to criticize? He is very well cast and there are two moments where he is exceptional. One is Empty Chairs at Empty Tables, which to me is almost as gripping as I Dreamed a Dream. The other is when he says/sings “I’m doing everything all wrong” in A Heart Full of Love, which, although brief, to me fully captures Marius and Cosette.
Amanda Seyfried as Cosette. Not many people can play the role. The vocals are ridiculous. She handles them with perfect grace and on top of that delivers a great performance. One standout moment is when Marius tells her that Valjean is the one who saved Marius at the barricade. Her reaction mid song, especially on her face, is one of many “chills” moments.
Aaron Tveit as Enjolras. Again I refer you to my wife, who said “That Enjolras is very pretty.” It’s true. He is. But don’t hold that against him. He is a very effective Enjolras. Perhaps his voice could use more power, but really many songs are undersung in the movie so that may be a directive not of his choosing.
Samantha Barks as Eponine. This woman is unbelievable. She is the Eponine in the 25th anniversary Les Mis concert (opposite Nick Jonas’ Marius and she still is willing to associate herself with Les Mis so that says a lot), and she is possibly my favourite Eponine, though it’s an admittedly tough pack to choose from! She’s beautiful and tortured, as she should be. Her voice is perfect and she made the transition to the screen perfectly, holding her own with seasoned screen vets like Jackman and Crowe. She also has an impossibly narrow waist. In one scene I was sure I could touch my thumb and forefinger around her belt. Her On My Own is probably the most true to Broadway piece in the movie, but does not suffer at all in it’s being well acted for all that. And when she gets shot and dies in Little Fall of Rain … I may have teared up. But only a little.
Daniel Huttlestone as Gavroche. Oh my god how cute is this kid! I loved him. He is the best Gavroche I’ve seen (apologies to my friends Michelle and Lisa). I only wish they’d let him sing Little People – even the reduced version. But alas that probably lies somewhere on the cutting floor. Too bad. He’d have killed it.
As for the rest of the cast, they are fantastic. Special nod to the foreman, who is deliciously slimy, and to the lady in the factory who ratted Fantine out, who is spectacularly vile.
So to sum it up I’ll say that it’s going to be a classic. Multiple nods at the Oscars no doubt, and a win for Anne Hathaway for sure. If you love the play, have no fear. If you’ve never seen the play, enjoy, and bring kleenex!
I welcome your comments. I am sure people disagree with some of my thoughts.
Thanks for reading,