MOVIE REVIEW: Les Miserables



I get in arguments all the time on this site with my movie reviews with those members of the audience that read the book versus those, like me, that didn't or don't care to read the book before the movie.  I just went through this with Jack Reacher and how Tom Cruise couldn't be more opposite to the description of the title character from the page.  As I often state, no movie will ever be like the book, ever.  It is impossible.  They are completely different mediums, different experiences, and have different mechanics and goals.  I have now found a second section of the movie-going audience that has the same problem as book readers: Broadway and musical fans.  This has entirely become apparent for me with the recent release of Oscar-winning director Tom Hopper's Les Miserables film adaptation.  You would think someone pissed on hallowed ground.

Like book readers, Broadway fans have a very well-crafted and specific preordained vision built, with high expectations, for any movie that is based on a popular musical or play.  If a film treatment dares to change things or behave even just a little differently than their impossible expectations, you've lost the fans.  I'll go back to the same argument for the book readers.  Musicals and plays are a completely different art form, production, and process than what you see in a film.  No matter what, no movie musical will ever be like the stage musical.  Once again, it is impossible.  

Maybe I'm selling them a little short (remember, I'm not a fan), but actors and performers on stage have to merely put on their costumes, hit their marks on stage, and sing their hearts out to match the voice range required for the role.  Other than inflection in song, you don't get the full emotional range of performance from your seated distance in a theater.  On the contrary, in a movie, in my opinion, more real acting is involved because the camera is on them and right up close.  More emotion and more convincing are needed, because the performers in a film can't hide behind a good singing voice (heaven forbid it's dubbed too).  Simply put, I'd rather see a movie with professional actors doing their best to sing than world class singers that can't act to a high enough level.  That's exactly what you get in Hopper's Les Miserables.

I'll say it right now.  I am far from a fan of movie musicals.  Few (Singin' in the Rain, West Side Story) ever move me or gain my respect.  I always appreciate the talent and effort to put them on, but I don't have the patience to sit through moments where singing for the sake of singing replaces frank words and simple dialogue.  "Get to the point already" is what commonly comes out of my mouth far too often.  That was my ongoing initial dread and reservation to putting in the time to Les Miserables.  

I knew the Victor Hugo story, but I've never seen the Broadway show.  Upon its Christmas release, all I read were criticisms comparing the film to the musical.  No matter if they were positive or negative comparisons, I found them unfair.  Why can't you just judge the two separately?  In the end, when I finally bit the bullet to see it, I found that my open mentality to judge Les Miserables as its own creation and not as a comparison to the stage helped me appreciate it immensely more.  Maybe I was spared the disappointment felt by fans and maybe I was able to be less cynical that the staunchest critics, but it all came out fine and I'm happy to share my thoughts.

Fans and non-fans likely know the melodramatic story all too well.  Every generation has their retelling of it.  In 1815, amid the growing French revolution gripping the country, Jean Valjean (Tony and Emmy winner Hugh Jackman) is a prisoner and former thief who earned a grudge with a prison guard named Javert (two-time Academy Award winner Russell Crowe) that would follow him all his life.  When Valjean is finally paroled for his time, he is held back by his label as a former criminal  before he finds and learns God, mercy, and benevolence from a local bishop (Colm Wilkinson, the original West End and Broadway Valjean, in a clever casting coup) who also provides him with silver to sell and change his life going forward.

Eight years later, with that boost and abandoning his parole reporting, Jean Valjean has changed his stars and his identity to Monsieur Madeleine, ascending to position of the respected factory owner and mayor in the village of Montrieul-su-Mer.  When Javert arrives to become the town's inspector, he soon grows suspicious of the mayor and eventually becomes convinced that Madeleine may well be the criminal he remembers that got away.  Parallel to Valjean in this village is the poor single mother Fantine (Oscar nominee Anne Hathaway), one of Valjean's workers.  Unable to pay her bills and care for her daughter Cosette (newcomer Isabelle Allen), she turns to selling her hair, teeth, and eventually her body as a prostitute.  As a scuffle with a suitor, Valjean rescues Fantine and promises to take on and care for Cosette.  When Valjean admits his identity to prevent another former criminal for taking the fall in his name, Javert renews his grudge and search to bring Valjean to justice.   Valjean purchases Cosette's freedom from a pair of crooked innkeepers (Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter) and the two escape Javert's grasp to Paris.

Yet another nine years later, Valjean and a grown Cosette (the up-and-coming Amanda Seyfried) live in comfortable seclusion while the revolution in the capital city around them grows to a tipping point.  A young and bright revolutionary named Marius (Eddie Redmayne of My Week with Marilyn) falls in love at first sight with Cosette and she shares that stirring affection.  Marius serves alongside resistance leader Enjorlas (Aaron Tviet, known to American audiences as a reoccurring character on TV's Gossip Girl), while another woman, Eponine (Samantha Barks, in her stunning film debut), the grown daughter of the innkeepers, longs for his love and attention.  In true melodrama fashion, this revolution, love triangle, and lifelong grudge and manhunt come to fitting conclusions before the credits roll and the music stops.

Once again, I feel relieved to be able to judge this, just as the movie it is, without comparison to the popular musical.  From a filmmaking standpoint, Tom Hopper's Les Miserables is a towering achievement in creation, design, and detail.  The sets, subtle effects, costumes, makeup, and casting look like they cost far more than the film's modest $61 million budget.  The film looks absolutely amazing from the many angles that cinematographer Danny Cohen's camera takes.  Fluidly moving from its three time periods, the stakes and the production value grow immensely.  Overall, Les Miserables spared no expense to artfully and strikingly create the slums of 19th century France to match a grand and famous story.  In that department, I was extremely impressed, as I commonly am with other movie musicals.  With the visual scope in employs and the length, literal and figurative, it goes to tell its story,

Les Miserables earns the "epic" adjective it seeks.  I will take a moment to address one large criticism from fans and critics and give my own take.  It's the one debate I'll cast a stone into and move on.  From professional critics like Michael Phillips in the Chicago Tribune to friends of mine who are fans of the stage musical, much discussion has been made about the extreme close-ups and ever-darting camera work from Tom Hopper's film.  Some critics (in particular, Philips wrote a largely negative review and put the movie on his "Worst" list because of the camera work) have called it too kinetic and unstable.   It is true that, more often than not, the lead actors are framed and signing in tight close-ups during their numbers and that the camera never stands still elsewhere.  It is indeed a somewhat jarring experience and overused effect that could have been paced and spaced for some songs and scenes, rather than employed for all.  

Overused or not, I will side with the positive praise more than the negative backlash.  I personally found that swooping and in-your-face perspective to be Hopper's way of getting right up into the emotion of a scene and to a place that you can't get to, even in the best front row seat of any stage performance.  As jarring as the point-of-view can be, I can't mistake the power of it.  It is exactly where a movie can become bigger than a stage musical and take performances to higher and great places.  Through this effect, you watch every wince, tear, and tremble of an actor or actress's emotional performance that is channeled through song.  Like I mentioned earlier, I'd rather have professional actors attempting to sing than the unemotive faces of power singers from Broadway.

That leads us to the performers and performances.  Know ahead of time, that only one (the opener in the water) of this film's songs is dubbed and plugged into the film in post-production.  Other than the one, every performance is sung on-scene and in front of the camera.  For that, I really have to tip my hat.  When combined with that close camera work, you "feel" the rawness of the performance as it happens and matches the acting that goes on to make it a movie.  Like I mentioned earlier again, this is a movie, not a stage production.  There are no marks on the stage to hit and planned pomp and circumstance. Having locations and movie sets means performances have to be more kinetic than on stage.

Make no mistake, this is Hugh Jackman's show and it needed to be.  Broadway fans know he's got the talent and, to me, he's commanding as Valjean and ages his voice and performance well to show the passage of time and emotional range covered by this story.  Anne Hathaway absolutely, exhaustive tears and all, nails the single take/no cutting-away "I Dream a Dream" number as an actress with the camera on her just as equally as she needed to do as a singer.  Susan Boyle can have her microphone.  I'd like to see her convey the scene as well as the voice the way Hathaway does.  Both Hugh and Anne are Golden Globe nominees for these roles and deserve their future Oscar nominations.

If there is one miscast voice and role among the leads (and remember, I've never seen the musical and am judging it as a neophite), it's Russell Crowe as Javert.  As the villain and heavy, that part needed to be rock-solid strong.  While he looks the part of the tireless hunter, I cannot complement his husky singing voice next to Jackman's.  It can't compete.  He's the weakest link of the leads and pulls the experience down a bit when he's there.  I'm not an astute enough musical fan to tell you who among Hollywood's actors (Will Ferrell and the Catalina Wine Mixer anyone?) could have done it better and sold tickets for the marketing department, so I'll leave that debate to them.

The smaller roles are filled surprisingly well by the lesser known cast members that don't get the marque or poster spots.  I didn't need them to be musically inclined, so anything from Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter was simply just fun.  Eddie Redmayne, who I've seen as just an actor in films like My Week with Marilyn and Hick, surprised me with a strong high voice of youth next to the burly men, separating himself nicely.  For my inexperienced ear, the showstopper among the secondary parts was Samantha Barks's Eponine.  Her "On My Own" number in the rain and performance on the losing end of a love triangle was a tough role for a first-timer to accomplish and she admirably did it.  Finally, I would have gladly taken more from Amanda Seyfried and her nice voice, but she doesn't get much to sing.  

As a total effort, Tom Hopper's Les Miserables is a rewarding movie musical experience.  I'm glad I caved to the peer pressure and saw it.  The debated close and moving camera work is indeed overused stylistically and the in-between dialogue did not need the weak extra singing by the cast, but, again, I'm not the harsh critic the true fans are.

As a movie guy, I'm happy to call it good, but not great.  I get that it's the kind of movie that will get a ton of Oscar attention next month and that's fine by me.  For all of those true fans, I'd love your feedback on the film and my review.  Share away!

LESSON #1: HOW TO DROP OFF THE GRID IN EARLY 19TH CENTURY FRANCE-- Apparently, all a former prison inmate has to do to drop off the grid in early 19th century France is come into some money, change their name, clean up and shave to look as dashing as Hugh Jackman, get a better job, and scoot out of a town in a carriage when necessary.  No one's checking papers?  Alright, this is my one joking lesson.

LESSON #2: THE PATH OF FORMER CRIMINALS TO A REFORMED AND BETTER LIFE-- While Jean Valjean received monetary and spiritual help from a kind bishop who saw his true heart and potential, the story of Les Miserables is a fine example in debunking the "once a criminal, always a criminal" mentality and stereotype.  It's just one of many reform stories that show how men and women can serve their time, renew their morals, and go on to lead meaningful, virtuous, and positive lives when given the chance to be accepted and change.

LESSON #3: THE PROTECTIVE AND RESPONSIBLE ROLE OF BEING A FATHER, EVEN AN ADOPTIVE ONE-- Once he promised Fantine to keep Cosette in his charge, the positive growth to change Jean Valjean towards honored good is complete.  He learns and takes great care for the importance, responsibility, and joy it is to being a father, the pinnacle role of any adult man.  Even when faced with the prospect of losing her to the love of a good man, Valjean rises to the occasion to give and do what is best for Cosette, even getting involved in greater cause of a violent revolution.

LESSON #4: CHOOSING MERCY OVER UPHOLDING THE LAW-- The Valjean/Javert relationship is one of the driving forces to Victor Hugo's story and this film.  Jean Valjean is the epitome of being a virtuous and merciful man.  He has his chances to let upholding the law or pressing charges seal the fates of Javert, and even Fantine.  He chooses mercy over that and lives and leads by that example.

LESSON #5: CHOOSING MERCY OVER REVENGE-- Continuing the crucial Valjean/Javert relationship is this final lesson of choosing mercy over revenge.  Encounter after encounter over the years, Valjean never seeks to take revenge over Javert.  He knows where he himself is wrong and that Javert has the right to persue what is lawful and just.  Still, Valjean chooses the route of mercy, greater good, and benevolence and eventually shows that a changed man for good can trump justice.