Long-term die hard fans of the enduring musical phenomenon need not worry or put off seeing Les Misérables in fear of disappointment or betrayal. This is the most perfect film adaptation of a stage production that it’s possible to imagine, incredibly loyal not only to the structure of the original production but also its original spirit.
I’m not a long-term or die hard fan of Les Misérables myself, having come to it relatively recently and only seen it through once (and then just the Blu-ray of the 25th anniversary concert performance at that.) But the one viewing at least meant I knew what to expect, and the film reminded me what an appalling shambles the first half of the musical really is in story terms. Its bedrock is the story of former convict Jean Valjean who breaks his parole in order to embark on a new life, which he does successfully to become a wealthy businessman and town mayor only to find himself once again chased down and hunted by his nemesis Inspector Javert. Along the way he adopts Cosette, the young daughter of a destitute former employee, and becomes embroiled in the 1832 Paris student uprising after a grown Cosette falls in love with one of the would-be revolutionaries.
It’s all got so much detail from Victor Hugo’s novel to cram in that the first half of the story has to hustle through a welter of different locations and times, and introduce a large array of characters at such speed that many you assume will be lasting stars of the story basically appear, suffer and exit in consecutive scenes as brief vignettes. It’s easy to see why early critics of the original production at the Barbican thought this was a fair disaster when it opened. Virtually all of the first act feels like prologue and scene-setting, and it’s not until the cast combines for the ensemble performance of “One Day More” that you really feel that the story is finally coming together, everything is at last in place and the strands are properly entwining. Even though the theatrical intermission that follows in the stage version is absent from the cinematic performance, you still feel the moment when it falls and afterwards – as the barricades arise on the streets of Paris – the story really takes off and delivers. But that’s not to say that there aren’t still plenty of highlights in that first half of the show; indeed, the need to run through all this material so quickly requires the production to dispense with any and all subtlety and go flat-out for every melodramatic device in the book, not least of these bringing its formidable musical arsenal to bear on the problem (it’s still amazing that it took the better part of 25 years for the top-notch, insanely addictive score to finally spawn a hit single spin-off.) Eventually, given such a relentless sustained juggernaut assault on the senses and emotions, any cynicism and resistance you came in with simply has to give way and succumb, battered into submission and surrender. And you’ll be glad it did.
All of that is common to both the stage production and the film, so let’s turn to discussing the latter in particular. And without doubt, the unique selling point of the movie and the aspect that’s captured all the press attention is how all the performances are delivered live, the star cast singing at the point of filming rather than miming to a pre-recorded track. And five minutes in, it’s hard to understand why anyone would film a musical in any other way, because it’s a triumphant success both in terms of giving the audience a ‘real’ experience and also allowing the actors to deliver a proper dramatic performance according to their own instincts and emotions at the time rather than being dictated to by the requirements of lip-syncing. (Actually, it’s easy to understand why no one else has tried it up to now: recording live sound on a stage is notoriously fraught and a technical nightmare.)
That creative decision sets the tone for the whole movie, which emphasises the reality of the story – a strange and distinctly risky choice for such an ‘unreal’ art form as a musical. The main performances all concentrate on the drama and emotion of the moment rather than on pure musical quality – the rendition here of “I Dreamed a Dream” couldn’t be further away from the famous Susan Boyle show-stopping version on Britain’s Got Talent – which means that the cast are always much more than merely adequate throughout, with no exceptions. That said, it’s sometimes very obvious when a character is being played by a proper veteran of stage musicals and has a professional singing voice, whether in a major supporting role such as revolutionaries Enjolras (Aaron Tveit) and Grantaire (George Blagden), lovelorn Éponine (Samantha Barks), or a relatively minor bit part such as the factory foreman (Michael Jibson) or an army officer (Hadley Fraser, who previously played Grantaire in the 25th anniversary concert.)
The most conspicuous high-profile transferee from the world of musical theatre is of course Hugh Jackman in the lead role of Valjean; it’s a lovely touch for fans of the show that he literally receives a blessing from the stage production’s original star Colm Wilkinson, who also passes him the metaphorical baton in the form of a silver candlestick. It’s Jackman’s decision to emphasise the dramatic acting side of his performance rather than going for Big Voice singing that sets the tone for the other stars to follow, and gives them license and lends them authenticity even when their voices might not be up to full concert/stage quality. The star who has attracted the most criticism for his singing is Russell Crowe as Javert, but actually I found him not only up to the task but one of the more triumphant performances of the entire film. The fact that he doesn’t have such a strong, booming voice as many of his stage predecessors have had but is instead a somewhat more constricted, strained effort somehow manages to humanise the inspector. It gives us a chance to see him as a real person rather than his typical stage incarnation as Valjean’s implacable, remorseless Terminator-esque nemesis. As a result, his final fate not only makes much more sense but is also genuinely affecting.
For me the weakest star role singing was from Amanda Seyfried as the older Cosette as she has a tendency to trill and warble with a rather shallow voice; Eddie Redmayne as her lover Marius sings in a higher register than I would like, but I think that’s a matter of my personal preference being unduly influenced by the strident singing of the original performer in the part (the inimitable Michael Ball) and that Redmayne’s performance is simply more in the modern re-styling of the stage role as a younger, less confident and more gauche character. It probably doesn’t help matters that Cosette and Marius are the two most difficult characters to empathise with in the story: despite her younger self being literally the poster child for the stage and film versions, the older Cosette is essentially a blank void at the heart of the story, there purely for the effect she has on others rather than a person in her own right. The film gives Seyfried little extra to work with in this regard and Cosette rather pales in comparison to the sympathetic Éponine, who steals the mid-section of the film with the heartbreaking “On My Own.” Meanwhile Marius is just a feckless rich boy playing at revolutionary who almost promptly abandons his great cause when he swoons at first sight of Cosette, so a more fickle and shallow ‘romantic hero’ it’s hard to imagine. That Redmayne actually succeeds in salvaging him and emerging as a genuine rounded person by the end is part due to his strong performance together with some extra character work added to the film – and also because you know that as superficial as Marius seems at the start, he’s set for a serious kicking over the course of the next hour that culminates in his solo song “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables,” which remains my favourite of the entire production.
Elsewhere in the cast, I have to say that I consider the casting of the Thenardiers the sole misstep of the film: reuniting Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen (who co-starred in the film version of Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street) makes this feel like an odd diversion into Tim Burton country. Also, their scenes are played much more subdued and grimly than you often get on the stage, where the Thenardiers are intended as the comedy grotesque/comic relief in the middle of all the gloom. In the film they’re just another layer of added venal depression, although Baron Cohen gets at least a few decent laughs by continually forgetting Cosette’s name.
While I’m nitpicking, I’ll add that while director Tom Hooper’s decision to go for the live on-set performances (and the ensuing casting decisions) is without doubt the key creative decision that transforms what could have been just another ho-hum film adaptation of a musical into a genuine staggering artistic success, I was less wild about the visual look and feel and the actual directing of the film. Perhaps it stems from that underlying ‘as-live’ decision but it leaves the film reliant on lots of ultra close-ups and unsteady Steadicams improvising moves around the performances, against a backdrop of unconvincing soundstage sets and too-apparent CGI vistas when the action moves outdoors. To be honest it’s probably actually better this way: it keeps the stage roots showing, and also emphasises the grey, drab and claustrophobic nature of the life of the poor Parisien underclass, but even so I can understand why Hooper missed out on a ‘Best Director’ Oscar nomination despite Les Misérables itself proving to be a strong contender for the ‘Best Picture’ award.
And if we’re really trying to pick at tiny flaws, I’ll say that the while it’s arguably the best attempt we’ve ever seen, the transition from stage to film still isn’t entirely successful and perhaps never can be no matter how well done. The jerky nature of the plot construction – masked on stage by the breaks for applause, set changes and intermissions – is left rather bare at times on screen. Sometimes you catch the film hanging on for a second or two, daring you to clap or cheer like the live audience would. Then the film realises that’s not how it’s done in the cinema, leaving it to quickly gather its wits and rush along to the next scene instead. Still, all that does is underline that no matter how well done the film is there’s still a place for the stage musical and that there’s no fully satisfying replacement for the electricity of a live performance – and long may that be the case.
But I wouldn’t want to end this review on a downer – even “The Glums” (as Les Misérables was ‘wittily’ dubbed by early critics in 1985) manages to conjure up a bizarrely effective upbeat triumphant ending despite practically the entire cast having already met with a tragic fate by that point. So just like a stage musical, I’ve held back one aspect of the review for the end in order to provide a fittingly resounding climax. Have you spotted the glaring omission from the discussion until now?
It’s Anne Hathaway. Much has been said about her performance as Cosette’s doomed mother Fantine, with many assuming that she’s virtually guaranteed the Oscar for her performance here. So lauded has it been that I rather expected a case of expectations exceeding reality, and I figured that after seeing all the publicity clips on television in recent weeks – including the famous ‘hair-hacking’ scene – that I was by now pretty thoroughly inoculated against her performance regardless of how good or otherwise it might be.
I was wrong, and Hathaway’s powerfully raw performance yanked me out of my cosy complacency, in the process punching into my chest and extracting my heart with her bare hands. It is a quite extraordinary sequence – even more so by its comparative brevity within the context of the film – and left me completely, utterly shredded; so much so that when she makes a late encore appearance in the film the effect is physically choking – especially since the film adds an unexpected cameo from another character at this point that pretty much delivers the final coup de grâce to leave the audience on the floor, sobbing.
Les Misérables might be a rushed mess story-wise at times in the first act, but its music is timeless and sublime. And the show as a whole – both on the stage on on the screen – is a ruthlessly effective machine geared to pulverising our emotions time and again that is well served by Tom Hooper’s film adaptation. It really is just as well there’s a final rousing chorus of “Do You Hear the People Sing?” to help us pull ourselves together before the houselights go up; it would be rather embarrassing otherwise.
Les Misérables is currently in cinemas around the world. It will be available on DVD and Blu-ray duing the summer of 2013, release date to be announced.