The 2012 film adaptation of Les Misérables has been savaged by some critics, and even its positive reviews were often less than glowing, but I don’t get it at all. It’s the wildly successful and very well-received stage musical, on the big screen, with real settings and backdrops, and great performances of great songs. (Roger Ebert seemed to dislike the movie in part because it’s not a faithful adaptation of the book, but that was never the intent – it’s an adaptation of the musical, an almost straight one with one short song added and virtually nothing else.) Musicals are not to everyone’s tastes, and you have to enter them willing to have people sing much or all of their dialogue at you for two-plus hours, but if you respect the musical film as its own art form, Les Misérables is among the best.
I have seen the musical, twice, the last time in 1993, and enjoyed it tremendously. The show opened in London in 1985 to generally negative reviews, and 27 years later is still playing in the West End, with the show set to return to Broadway next year for its third run on top of the over 7000 performances already enacted. It won eight Tony Awards, including Best Musical, when it debuted in 1987. And, in my experience, it’s one of the great “love-to-hate” works in the creative arts of my lifetime, where there’s a certain inexplicable pride in disliking something so popular. I’m not in that camp; despite the two-decade gap, I still remembered all of the songs and probably half of the words. But I liked the music, and like it even more today because it has a veneer of nostalgia for me; if you don’t like the music, you’re going to really dislike the film – and the play.
The story centers on the French convict Jean Valjean, who did 19 years of hard labor for stealing a loaf of bread and evading arrest. He gains his freedom at the start of the film, undergoes a transformation when a priest takes pity on him, and devotes his life to doing good for the less fortunate, becoming a successful businessman who employs many workers from the margins of French society. He encounters a prostitute, Fantine, who is ill and being harassed by a john; when Valjean discovers that Fantine was sacked from his factory, he resolves to help her and to raise her daughter, Cosette, who is in the “care” of the comically crooked Thenardiers. Through each stage of Valjean’s life, he is pursued by the policeman Javert, a cold, heartless man who sees no room for mercy within the law, a pursuit that repeatedly puts Valjean into situations where he must choose between sacrifice and self-preservation. The film’s climax revolves around the failed student revolutions of 1832, where the teenaged Cosette falls in love with the student leader Marius, who is friendly with the Thenardiers’ daughter, Eponine; her love for Marius remains unrequited as the tables from her childhood are turned. The ill-fated revolution puts Marius in harm’s way, during which Valjean manages to save him and have one final encounter with Javert.
Director Tom Hooper made the semi-controversial decision to have his actors sing live on the set rather than dubbing studio versions of the songs on to the film afterwards, but the move gives the film a tremendous rawness suited to the time and themes of the movie, and also avoids the always-jarring shift from live audio to studio recordings. (They do this at least once an episode on Top Chef with Padma, and it always sounds wrong.) The move also allows Hugh Jackman to show off an immense singing voice in a performance that could have carried the movie on its own; while Daniel Day-Lewis is considered the lock for Best Actor for Lincoln, I don’t think his role was as difficult as Jackman’s nor was his performance as huge. Les Misérables is over the top, by design, and Jackman has to fill space to meet those requirements. He does, without fail, aging 20 years from the movie’s start to finish while his character undergoes the most significant changes of any in the film.
Anne Hathaway has received much-deserved praise for her turn as Fantine in a supporting role – she’s dead before the halfway point, sorry – and a performance of the musical’s best-known song, “I Dreamed a Dream,” that should leave audiences in the fetal position. (You might also know that song as the coming-out tune for the Scottish singer Susan Boyle.) Hathaway’s was just the most notable of several supporting performances in Les Misérables, however, as the narrative seems to have focused on her and Jackman while ripping Russell Crowe (more on him in a moment) and ignoring everyone else. Helena Bonham-Carter appears as
herself Mme. Thenardier, with Sacha Baron Cohen as her husband and the two of them chewing the scenery as the film’s main comic relief, the thieving, amoral, unhygienic inkeepers who scheme right up to the end of the film. Eponine, whose “On My Own” is another heartbreaking ballad (it’s actually a pretty tragic story for most of the characters), gets a tremendous rendition by the Manx singer Samantha Barks in her first film role, although she’d played the character on the stage for several months before the film was made. TV actor Aaron Tveit usurps Marius (played by Eddie Redmayne) in several scenes as the even more fervent revolutionary Enjolras, with Tveit commanding the camera more easily despite the same silly foppish hairstyle as his fellow tourists.
Crowe has been hammered for his mediocre singing in the film, somewhat unfairly – he’s the worst, yes, because someone has to be, but his poor singing didn’t detract from the film at all, and his performance as Javert was cold because Javert is cold, a pre-Terminator of sorts who sees only black and white. I thought Amanda Seyfried, while as pretty as ever, was just as weak a link and also not a particularly strong singer, but she’s received none of the same wrath as far as I can see. Cosette is the worst-written of the major characters in the musical as well – Eponine, as the tragic figure, is much more interesting and gets that one knockout song, while Cosette just flutters along, gets the boy she wants, and they live happily ever after.
Seeing the stage musical brought to life with real sets and closer views of the action was a thrill, since I saw the play from the cheap seats, but the cinematography in the film version was a real weakness, remarked on even in many positive reviews I’ve seen. I noticed it most during two of the film’s chase sequences involving Javert and Valjean, as well as the advance of the French soldiers when they begin their assault on the student barricades – the camerawork was shaky, uneven, and often angled oddly, while we are treated to far more closeups than we ever needed, especially of wide-open mouths going all fortissimo on us. That said, Hooper and company were up to the challenge of presenting ensemble numbers sung by characters in different locations, easy to do on the stage (you only have so much room) but harder on film, such as in “One Day More,” which could easily become a confused mess but holds together just enough to get us to the finish.
What may bother critics who disliked the film is its inherent populist feel. The songs are all written to move the viewer emotionally – tragic numbers, rousing numbers, comic numbers, even the cloying “Castle on a Cloud” sung by the neglected child Cosette. The story has a strong theme of redemption, with many references to God and religion, as did the original novel, with attendant themes of charity, equality, and respect for one’s fellow man (and woman), along with condemnation of the abuse of authority, of justice without mercy, and of concentration of power. The film wants you to feel something, lots of somethings, but so did Hugo, even if he did it without soaring harmonies and repeated melody lines. It’s neither right- nor left-wing, but it is pointed, and mixes hope with tragedy in unequal portions. You’ll have a song or two (or five) stuck in your head, but I think Jackman’s performance alone will prove just as memorable, as will the film as a whole.
That concludes my run through the Best Picture nominees, as I’ve seen all but Amour and am choosing to skip that one. It has no chance to win, apparently, but I’d still vote for Zero Dark Thirty for Best Picture, with Ang Lee my choice for Best Director for Life of Pi. I have only seen three nominees in each of the Best Actor and Best Supporting Actress categories, but I’d vote for Jackman and Hathaway, respectively. I’m hoping to see at least one or two more nominated performances before the awards are handed out next Sunday.