For 2012’s big musical release, director Tom Hooper has tackled the behemoth of musicals, Les Miserables. Adapting this French Revolution musical that spans 20-odd years is no simple undertaking, but Hooper managed to do a wonderful job (despite a few missteps). Whether or not you’re familiar with the source material for the film (the novel by Victor Hugo or the stage musical by Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schonberg) you are bound to enjoy much of this film (unless, of course, you dislike musicals).
The main story of the film focuses on the convict Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) running from police inspector Javert (Russell Crowe) whose life mission is to recapture Valjean. Valjean crosses path with factory worker Fantine (Anne Hathaway) and in a twist of fate raises her daughter Cosette (Isabelle Allen) after her mother’s untimely passing. Cut to a decade later, and older Cosette (Amanda Seyfried) falls for revolutionary Marius (Eddie Redmayne) with one glance. But to get the girl, Marius must survive the ensuing revolutionary uprising.
Tackling a sung-through musical (in which every line of the musical is sung) is no easy task (see also: Evita); but Hooper does an admirable job. The main reason for its success (and a few failures) is that the actors sing live for the camera instead of lip-synching to prerecorded tracks of their voices. For the actors who are trained vocalists, this singing works well; but for the actors with weaker voices, they play up their sing-acting with enough emotionality to hide their low-key singing.
Hugh Jackman, as a Broadway veteran, should’ve had the most ease with this film; but he (or Hooper?) chose to make his voice ragged to match Valjean’s rough and aging character, thus masking Jackman’s smooth voice (although without smothering any of Jackman’s intensity). The younger theater performers fared better. Samantha Barks reprised her role as Eponine (after performing it in the 25th Anniversary Concert performance opposite Nick Jonas as Marius) and belted out “On My Own” with full emotionality in the rain. Aaron Tveit, too, lent his beautiful voice (and curly mop of hair) to the cast as Enjolras. Even Anne Hathaway managed to sing a haunting version of “I Dreamed a Dream.” While her voice doesn’t stand a chance against Patti LuPone (who originally sang it), her tearful performance captures the emotionality of the song in a way that is only possible as a film musical.
Less capable with the singing was Russell Crowe, who spends most of the film look deeply uncomfortable as he tries to sing his lines (his voice is too pretty and gentle to match the character of Javert). Amanda Seyfried’s vibrating staccato (last heard in Mamma Mia!) is suited for the role of Cosette—potentially the least-liked character in the musical. Eddie Redmayne’s warbling seems to match her staccato as they embark on their naive love story. Although Redmayne controls his voice much better in his understated “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables,” which is far more heartbreaking than Hathaway’s ballad in the film.
Most surprising of all, however, was how completely not annoying Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter were as the Thenardiers (the only characters that are actually more annoying than Cosette). Carter channels her Mrs. Lovett and Cohen his Pirelli from Sweeney Todd to bring the despicable comedic reliefs to life. Even though they still act as though they are in a Tim Burton film, they embody the Thenardiers exactly as they should.
If the ballads in the film succeed from the live singing technique, it is the group numbers that suffer. The opening group number “At the End of the Day” lacks the oomph you get from the stage ensemble. “Lovely Ladies” suffers a little too as the opening lines “I smell women/smell ’em in the air” is turned from a shout to a whisper. These changes, while annoying to some theater fans, actually work well to embody the grittiness of the filmic world Hooper has created. Fortunately, the epic act one finale song “One Day More” is greatly enhanced in this film adaptation as each individual character’s overlaying solos are highlighted and combined together in a perfect, goosepimple-inducing montage.
The biggest missteps in this film are centered on the camera. Claustrophic shots of Hathaway, Jackman, and Redmayne during their ballads makes their performances almost painful to watch. Conversely, the schizophrenic camera during Crowe’s ballads makes his songs extra dizzying (since they occur on the top of tall buildings/bridges). The group numbers fair better, but the quick editing in some of the scenes makes it almost worse than the stagnant shots in the ballads. Fortunately, Les Miserables is long enough that you can look past much of the camerawork and focus on the beauty found throughout—sumptuous costumes and sets! The beautiful voices of the young revolutionary men!). If you do, then this will be the shortest three hours of your life.
For me, the hardest part of watching most musicals on film is the first ten minutes. When the film opens and it looks like a normal movie, but then actors begin singing, creating a jarring effect on the brain (no matter how much I prep for this it always happens). Yet by the second or third number I am accustomed to and revel in it. Les Miz has a longer learning curve, but by the prologue’s end, Jackman will finally convince you to ignore the befuddling camerawork and focus on the lavish musical being presented. While the film has earned (and will continue to earn) much awards buzz (and rightfully so), its chances at winning the gold at the Oscars seem somewhat less likely given the unconditional critical praise surrounding its lead competitor Zero Dark Thirty (but more on that later).