Film Review: Les Miserables

Okay, a few things to go over:

1. I’ve fallen behind on the reviews. A lot. I now have to do write-ups on Lincoln, Anna Karenina, Hitchcock, Hyde Park on Hudson, Killing Them Softly, and Django Unchained. Additionally, I will still be seeing The Hobbit, This is 40 and Jack Reacher this week. So I’ll probably have to resort to some capsule reviews (especially after this monster of a post).

2. There are spoilers for Les Miserables in here. Lots of them. Basically all over the place. This is what happens when you write 3,500 words about it. It’s also pretty much entirely stream of consciousness, and not edited. So there’s that.

Anyway, on with the show. Buckle up.

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Let’s get the requisite admissions of bias out of the way at the beginning of this thing: I unabashedly love the musical version of Les Miserables. I saw the Broadway version on a Junior High School field trip in all of its opulence. I loved it. I love its naked emotion mixed with melodramatic bombast. Specifically, I fell in love with the following things:

  • Fantine
  • Eponine
  • Enjolras
  • The post-revolution medley of “Turning” into “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables”

It’s difficult not to fall in love with Eponine and Fantine. They’re the two truly tragic characters of the musical (though, you could probably make an argument for Javert as well). Sure, Valjean spends nineteen years in a labor camp, but that all happens prior to the musical, so you don’t really feel it other than in the opening number. Considering how much of his life is spent on the lam running from Javert, he constantly manages to carve out a decent living for both himself and the growing Cosette. And yeah, Cosette had a pretty terrible childhood and grew up without a mother, but her adult life isn’t exactly full of hardship. Same goes for Marius, who at least has a cause to fight for, but his inner struggle between revolution and love doesn’t have the same sense of scale as the lives of Fantine and Eponine. Fantine had the temerity to have a child, and is awarded for such behavior by being thrown out on the street for suspicion of being a prostitute, which forces her to actually become a prostitute to pay for the care of her daughter, who she still cannot support and has to rely on Valjean for help, only to end her part in the story by dying without ever seeing her daughter again. Eponine makes a cameo as the favored child of the Thenardiers, but the meat of her story comes from being the blindly devoted third wheel to the Marius/Cosette love story. She is completely, utterly and genuinely in love with Marius, and will do anything for him, even as her actions push him away from her and into the arms of Cosette. She is killed on the barricade protecting Marius, and dies in his arms as he says he loves her, though it is clearly the love of a sibling and not true love. Both of these stories also feature two of the most soul crushing numbers in the entire musical, Fantine’s “I Dreamed a Dream” and Eponine’s “A Little Fall of Rain” (I know most would cite “On My Own” here, but it doesn’t have the same emotional heft as her exiting duet with Marius).

As for Enjolras, well, he’s just cool. That’s what happens when your entire part in the musical consists of singing stirring revolutionary songs and planting flags of defiance everywhere. It’s the William Wallace/Aragorn in Return of the King factor.  My love of “Turning” and “Empty Chairs and Empty Tables” is mostly about how it shuts the door on the student’s revolution with such melancholy force. These characters, songs and moments are the chief reason why the musical has stayed with me for so long, and is the one musical that has successfully managed to fight for my affection alongside the work of Stephen Sondheim. It’s garish and it’s over the top, and it’s bloated, and I love (nearly) every second of it.

I’ve been following the production of the film adaptation of the musical for quite a long time, and have put myself through the wringer trying to figure out whether it would actually be a worthy use of my (or anyone’s) time. This included the roller coaster of the announcement of the cast from great (Hugh Jackman as Valjean was pretty much the only option, Hathaway clearly has the acting chops to make Fantine’s story resonate, and Samantha Barks is a stage-proven Eponine) to not so great (Russell Crowe probably doesn’t have the voice for this, and of course there was the infamous rumor that Eponine was originally going to be Taylor Swift), right up to the release of the original “I Dreamed a Dream” teaser trailer. I watched that teaser dozens, if not hundreds of times. It made Hathaway’s casting seem like an inspired choice, as her delivery of the climax (namely the “I had a dream my live would be/So different from this hell I’m living”) intercut with scenes of the barricade brought me to near tears. I was so in.

The mini-featurette that was released in the fall made things even better, as the actors and Tom Hooper discussed the process of having the actors actually sing their parts live, which would allow for a higher degree of acting and improvisation within the songs themselves, as they would not have to worry about slavishly following a prerecorded version of the song. I think they went a little overboard on how novel they thought the approach was (the whole “this has never been done before!” aspect of it was tiring), but the results were there, and they sounded incredible. To be honest, I was fully on board, and hadn’t seen a single thing that made me worried (perhaps other than the casting of Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter as the Thenardiers; I’ve never been a huge fan of those characters, but it seemed like the actors would likely focus more on the comic relief and less on the underlying malice of the characters that made them at least vaguely interesting). Then the major trailers hit. Which meant they couldn’t avoid showing Russell Crowe singing anymore. The first full trailer included a snippet of Javert’s section of “One Day More,” and it sounded terrible. The phrasing was awkward and his voice sounded thin, which robbed it of the sort of command you would want from an authority figure like Javert. It was the first (and luckily only) chink in the armor leading up to the film’s release. And it worried me a bit, but not enough to ruin my expertly cultured mix of surprise and fear. Considering that Tom Hooper’s previous film was The King’s Speech (a film I very much dislike, and will always hold a grudge against for robbing The Social Network and David Fincher of some Oscary goodness two years ago) and the Crowe nonsense, there was a legitimate chance that the whole thing would fall on its face. But then I would fire up that “I Dreamed a Dream” trailer, and everything would seem right again.

I decided to wait a day to see Les Miserables, partially to hopefully avoid a more boisterous Christmas day crowd, and partially because the concept of spending nearly three hours on Christmas watching Django Unchained just made more sense to the atheist in me. And yeah, the big theater at the Regal by Fenway Park wasn’t super packed for the 11 AM screening of Les Mis on Wednesday. But that’s just how I liked it.

And really, I don’t know how to review this 160 minute monster of a film. I think I need to see it again simply because I couldn’t pay attention to anything but the music and the actors. And because of this, I can’t actually make any claims to the quality of the directing or the cinematography, because it just faded into the background as the emotion of the film just washed over me. So this review (if you can even call it that) won’t be about that. What I’m essentially aiming for is a stream of consciousness about what I felt, good and bad, over the course of the assault that is this film from the perspective of a devotee of the musical. So here goes.

The first thing that hits you is the fact that yes, Russell Crowe really does sound that bad. To be fair, his first part isn’t exactly designed to be showy, but is instead some of the patented borderline awkward sing-talking that exists in the gutters between full-blown musical numbers. Jackman sounds fine, but Crowe seemed to be fulfilling the disappointing prophecy of that trailer. The second thing that hits you is Colm Wilkinson. We knew he was playing the bishop that spares Valjean when he tries to steal his silver, but actually hearing that singing voice and actually seeing the passing of the Valjean torch in such a reverent way was such a wonderful touch. It helped wash away any enmity that was building up over Crowe’s vocal chops (or lack thereof). But the first hour or so is not owned by Crowe, or Jackman or Wilkinson. This is Anne Hathaway’s show.

It’s difficult putting the exposed nerve that is Anne Hathaway’s Fantine into the correct context. I am personally of the opinion that the praise she is receiving (which involves the belief that she could very well be a slam dunk for Best Supporting Actress at the Oscars next year) might actually be underselling the work she has done here in her short screen time. In truth, Fantine’s got about three and a half songs to shine, from “At the End of the Day” through “Fantine’s Death,” and she makes sure to get as much out of it as possible. This is necessary, as Fantine, in many ways, is Valjean’s emotional center for the entire film, a cautionary tale of what can happen when you lose your sense of dignity for even a short time out of the need for self-preservation, and how family, love and faith must rule the day. The Fantine section (which plays out as the most exhilarating and heartfelt part of the entire film) also manages to present an example of where a change to the structure of the original musical can work in its favor. In this case, Hooper and the screenwriters decided to move “I Dreamed a Dream” into the middle of “Lovely Ladies,” which is a perfect place for it. Since the concept of “I Dreamed a Dream” is to show Fantine’s despair at the lowest pits of her life, it only makes sense to have it take place after she’s already been forced into prostitution, and is truly at the lowest of the low. Her “I Dreamed a Dream” is just as good as advertised, and probably better, as the live singing allows Hooper’s camera to park itself inches away from her face to capture every minute detail, as the disbelief of a world turned cruel so quickly gives away to abject despair, hopelessness and loss. Her pining for her lost lover seems almost deliriously impossible now. She may not have the pipes of a Patti Lupone or a Ruthie Henshall (Henshall was Fantine in the 10th Anniversary concert, my favorite portrayal of the character), but the fragility and emotional resonance she gives the character is worth so much more than the extra decibels on some of the bigger notes. It’s really all the Academy needs, which is not to say that the rest of her performance is not of the same caliber.

What is unfortunate, though, is that the best part of the entire film is immediately followed by the worst part of the film. I’ve never liked “Castle in a Cloud,” but young Isabelle Allen does a great job with it). I wish I could say the same for Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter, who have not learned how to sing better since Sweeney Todd. They are exactly as you would expect, and while they pull off “Master of the House” well enough, they quickly (and I mean quickly) wear out their welcome, especially during “The Thenardier Waltz of Treachery.” The Thenardiers come across simply as crooks without any depth, and it appears that the filmmakers realized this and correctly cut “Dog Eat Dog” from the second act, which is a great song that Baron Cohen could not pull off in a million years. And then it’s followed up by “Suddenly,” a new Valjean song written for the film that is ostensibly designed to show Valjean accepting his newfound fatherhood, but in actuality is presumably a cheap shot at getting a free Oscar for Best Original Song. It’s not very good, is completely superfluous and represents two and a half minutes that should have been used elsewhere.

Things get better immediately though, as the elder Cosette, Marius, Enjolras and Eponine hit the screen and revolution hits Paris. I had no idea that Amanda Seyfried could sing, but she does quite well with Cosette, who is a generally thankless character who basically exists to be in distress and fawn all over Eddie Redmayne’s Marius. Aaron Tveit’s Enjolras may not have that forceful and awesome power of Michael Maguire, but no one on Earth has the forceful and awesome power of Michael Maguire, so that’s to be expected. Still, his boyish good looks, undeniable charisma and ceaseless dedication to the cause perfectly paints the picture of a man who is entirely committed to his cause and entirely doomed to die on the barricades against a heavily overpowering foe. He is the perfect leader, and one of the true surprises of the film. Enjolras is an entirely one-dimensional character in the musical who lucks out by being in the center of some great rabble rousing pieces (namely “Red and Black” and “Do You Hear the People Sing?”), but nothing much else. It takes true character to breathe life into the character, and both we and the film as a whole are better for it. As an added bonus, the plucky little kid they got for Gavroche is both plucky and a kid, and is thus perfect for the part.

Eddie Redmayne might actually be my favorite incarnation of Marius, mostly because he plays him has kind of a dweeb. Specifically in the scenes in the ABC Cafe just after meeting Cosette for the first time and during “In My Life/A Heart Full of Love,” he blushes and stumbles over his words, unable to fully articulate his newfound love. His love for Cosette is so innocent and pure that he cannot even see what he is doing to Eponine. It’s incredibly charming, and sets up his character perfectly for the hammer drop that is “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables,” an anguished eruption of loss and of shame for being the one who survived among his litany of fallen friends. He plays it quiet and close to the vest (the musical accompaniment doesn’t come in until the end of the fourth line, a lilting guitar that is slowly wrapped with doleful strings), slowly building and pulling back throughout the song. It cannot compare to Hathaway’s “I Dreamed a Dream,” but it has the distinction of being the second best song of the film, and is undoubtedly a star-making turn for Redmayne.

Samantha Barks has the distinction of being the only member of the principal cast that has a prior connection to the musical. She played Eponine at the 25th Anniversary concert (AKA that one where they thought it would be a good idea for Nick Jonas to play Marius), so her voice was not exactly in question. What remains in question, then, is the rest of her performance and her ability to scale back her performance to a much smaller screen than the massive projection required for the stage. Luckily, we had nothing to worry about. She has to essentially play two different roles, the depressed ingénue when on her own and the hopeful woman working tirelessly to win Marius’ love when he is near. Her enthusiasm to do everything Marius asks of her is heartbreaking. She nails “On My Own” with little worry, and while it’s her showcase song, I’ve always been far fonder of “A Little Fall of Rain,” her wrenching death ballad and last attempt to win the heart of Marius, who capitulates hollowly offering the love of a brother. And both Redmayne and Barks are fantastic when we get there. Indeed, the harmony during the final refrain was the first time I welled up post-Hathaway. But sadly, there are two problems at stake here. The first, and more egregious, is the fact that they cut the second verse (beginning with Marius’ “You will live a hundred years/If I could show you how” and ending with the devastatingly sad Eponine line “I’ll sleep in your embrace at last”), which is a nearly unforgiveable trespass, as that is the section of the song that truly hammers home the despair of Eponine’s short life and unfortunate death. The other is a case of simple misunderstanding, as Hooper decided to make sure that it was raining during the song. Of course, with a name like “A Little Fall of Rain,” it would seem to make sense, but the actual point of the name “A Little Fall of Rain” is that it is not raining, and Eponine feels the blood (her blood) that has drenched her hair and clothes and falsely assumes it was caused by rain and not by her quickly approaching death. It’s what makes the line “the rain can’t hurt me now” (as well as “The rain that brings you here/is heaven blessed,” which is a particularly crushing commentary that the only thing that would make Marius finally see her for who she is is her own death) so poignant. But no, your average viewer would just assume that she’s commenting on the actual rainstorm that is occurring on screen. It’s the single best song in the entire musical, and the director and the writers missed the mark. Barks and Redmayne still make it ultimately worthwhile, but the fact that sections of this song (and “Turning” and the more expository parts of “ABC Café/Red and Black”) were cut so we could endure “Suddenly” is seriously unfortunate.

But then (chronologically) we get a pretty damned good Jackman performance in “Bring Him Home” and the aforementioned “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables,” and everything is better again. The wedding comes and goes with another unfortunate cameo from the Thenardiers, and we come to the grand finale in the convent. It’s a testament to the power of Hathway’s performance earlier in the film that I, to use a somewhat base phrase, lost my shit immediately the second Fantine reappeared on screen, before she even managed to say a word. The finale, leading into the stirring reprise of “Do You Hear the People Sing?” just destroyed me emotionally; every cut to Fantine or Eponine or Enjolras, the revered dead, I just couldn’t take it anymore. And that’s the point of Les Miserables. It beats you down emotionally until you cannot take it anymore, and then it brings everyone back for one final song, and it’s impossible to keep your composure. The tears stopped flowing about a minute into the credits. Clearly, this shows that the film was a success for me, as it managed to evince the same emotions as the musical, sometimes in a better way, sometimes worse, but with the same power as the musical.

Les Miserables is a deeply, deeply flawed film. Russell Crowe never sounds right. He gives his best during “Stars” and “Javert’s Suicide,” but his voice just isn’t there. I’m still pretty annoyed with how they mangled “A Little Fall of Rain” (if that wasn’t clear already). I went into this film knowing that all they really needed to do for me to love it would be to nail three numbers: “I Dreamed a Dream,” “A Little Fall of Rain” and “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables.” 2.5 out of 3 ain’t bad. Otherwise, the film appears to be heavily designed for the previously converted; I cannot imagine that someone seeing the musical for the first time in film form could enjoy the experience in the same kind of way that I did. Early exposure really requires a legitimate intermission after “One Day More” to catch one’s breath and refocus. It can seem overlong and tiring if you do not already know what is coming and where the story will turn in the coming hours. As I said earlier, I cannot speak to the quality of the cinematography or pacing, because I am incredibly biased. I plan to see it again sooner rather than later, and it is possible I will be able to pay more attention to things that are not simply the musical itself. But, in the end, there is so much good for those crazy Les Mis devotees like myself that it just works. Is it the best film of the year? Not even remotely. Is it my favorite film of the year, and my best cinema-related experience of the year? Cabin in the Woods comes pretty close, but I think we have a new winner.

 

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2 responses to “Film Review: Les Miserables

    • Yes, I’ve generally found that not finding the premise of a film stupid is a good first step in liking it.

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