(This review originally appeared at Reel Film News on December 19, 2012.)
In 1990, my father bought my two older sisters and me tickets to Les Misérables at the National Theater in Washington, D.C. as consolation for the middle sibling being jilted by her Sadie Hawkins date that day. As I recall, it was an afternoon performance, and for nearly three hours in that theater, we sat transfixed by this musical, the likes of which we’d never experienced. As a fourteen-year-old boy just learning to be a musician, I found the score and the singing to be of the highest caliber I’d heard to that point in my life, and it has rarely been surpassed since. Also, of note, the program booklets given to the audience contained one small ad in the very back that excited me to no end – it was the image of Cosette with words announcing a filmed version to be coming soon, with the Tri-Star Pictures logo in the bottom corner. Finally, after 22 years and a lot of studio problems later, Universal Pictures is releasing the filmed adaptation of the Les Misérables musical… and it is, for all intents and purposes, every bit worth the wait.
There is no doubt that the diehard fans of this play will take exception to this film, which is meant to bring Les Misérables to a wider audience; they may think that the film will cheapen the stage experience, but I think that’s not entirely true, as it’s not dumbed down at all. The stage version will always hold its own mythic status highly and proudly, while the film version serves as a fine introduction to those who haven’t experienced it before. Novelist Victor Hugo’s classic story of hope and redemption amidst the chaotic background of the 1832 June Rebellion in France still stands the test of time; some of it is made even more relevant to us these days due to the Occupy movement that swept our nation starting in 2011. Just like the play, there are moments which are undeniably unforgettable, and the performances by Hugh Jackman as escaped parolee Jean Valjean and Anne Hathaway as beleaguered factory worker-turned-prostitute Fantine help to make this movie soar. Her version of “I Dreamed a Dream” has redefined my personal love for the song; while I thought it couldn’t get better than Patti LuPone’s performance on both the Original London and Broadway cast recordings, Hathaway made me (and several other reviewers) weep with this beautiful, impassioned, single-take performance.
Director Tom Hooper’s take on this musical features something not often seen in musical films: live singing. Usually, songs are recorded prior to filming, to which the actors later mime on film. With Les Misérables, vocal takes were recorded as they were performed in front of the camera, providing an even greater layer of realism to the film. Although some vocal tracks do not escape the dreaded digital manipulation of Auto-Tune, what you see on screen is actually the actors singing to an off-camera piano, with orchestral music filled in during post-production. It’s a touch like this that makes Les Misérables a great movie, in that the performances are as real as you’re going to get. That’s not to say that Les Misérables is without fault; Russell Crowe’s flat performance as Javert nearly kills the mood any time he’s in the shot. Even though he’s written as a hard, stolid man steadfast in his beliefs, Crowe seems like he’s phoning it in, relying on the inherent power the play and the music have. Also, as the part of Javert was written for a baritone, his hesitant, note-slurring tenor delivery gets upstaged by the firm, solid vocals provided by much of the other cast members. It’s almost as if he was scared to even be a part of this movie, and his lack of temerity and resonance makes the movie suffer somewhat.
The rest of the cast – especially Eddie Redmayne as the lovestruck schoolboy Marius – takes to their task with lots of brio and zest. Notable turns by Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen (which shouldn’t be much of a shock, considering his exceptional performance in Hugo) as the squalid heads of the Thénardier family give the film an appropriate amount of crazy, while Samantha Barks shines as their daughter Eponine, a role she previously played in London’s West End in 2010. Danny Cohen’s cinematography tends to be a little overmuch, alternating from sweeping vista shots to uncomfortable shaky-cam to plain still shots, but it keeps you in the moment and captures all the action well. One more quibble about the movie: the orchestral soundtrack. For some reason, I felt like some of the underpinning score was rather thin and lacking all the bombast to match the actors’ voices.
How should this cinematic version of Les Misérables be taken? As a standalone movie with its own history? As a companion piece to the play? Undoubtedly, those who have seen the play will bring their own attachments and baggage to any screening of this movie, and that is where my problem with reviewing this film lies. After 22 years of hearing countless recordings and seeing the play three times (twice in D.C., once on Broadway), it is very easy to want to compare the film to the previous iterations with which I’m most familiar. However, this new version of Les Misérables stands quite well on its own, being its own separate entity and a very welcome addition to the musical’s storied history. The choices that Hooper has made will define this musical for many generations, and the film provides an up-close look at performances that we may have only seen from faraway balconies at various stages around the world. With this film adaptation of the famed play, audiences everywhere can finally experience the phenomenon on a larger scale.