So, going into this movie, I already had a lot invested in it. That’s usually a prescription for disappointment but in this case, I didn’t hate it. I didn’t love it (with a few exceptions) but the parts that worked, worked. I got chocked up, I felt. And that’s more than the Hobbit did.
So again, let me start with what worked. The production design is excellent here as well. The costuming isn’t perfectly period but it’s good. Javier’s uniform and Eponine’s cleavage both were displayed to great and impressive effect. Sacha Cohen’s Thenardier does essential work and Helen Carter is…the exact same character she’s been for the last ten years. Both Cosettes are excellent, acting and singing well. The ‘tent pole’ musical numbers worked, I’m thinking primarily of ‘Look down’, ‘Valjean’s Soliqoquy’ and the Bishop’s song just before, ‘Do you hear the people sing?’, ‘master of the house’, ‘Red and Black’, ‘empty chairs and empty tables’, ‘One day more’ but most of all, ‘I dreamed a dream’. Anne Hathaway REALLY hit it out of the park. I’ve seen and heard a heck of a lot of actresses do Fantine and I have to say, Anne Hathaway is the best. I had mixed feelings about Russel Crowe, which I’ll get into, but he has the acting skill and physicality to play Javert. Hugh Jackman will probably get a lot of praise but he’s just…ok. He does have some good scenes but he’s just ok.
I won’t do a huge plot recap, that’s what Wikipedia is for, but I will say that the themes and emotions of the musical come across well, even if the movement from scene to scene is a little jerky. Some songs are changed, one is added, some are dropped or the order changed. On the whole, the changes and choices work. The Thenardier’s get a bit more screen time but the movie really needs the comedic relief, so that works. Redemption, forgiveness (forgiving yourself as well as others) and love (romantic, fraternal and parental) are big themes and it was kind of a relief that they were given so much attention. So many movies or stories in general aren’t ABOUT anything. Or they’re only about pushing the excitement button. Les Miserable tugs, pulls and mangles the heart strings but it’s doing so without irony and in service of powerful ideas. It’s almost the most overtly Christian story I’ve seen in a long time, showing how faith can change lives and how the lack of it, ends them. But though good is ultimately rewarded, evil thrives. This isn’t a George Lucas movie. The barricades are blown down, the revolutionaries are defeated, the Thenardier’s thrive and escape punishment, not all love is requited. If you have the time to read a 1000 page novel, and the patience for a 19th century sense of pacing, I truly think Les Miserables is one of the best books EVER written.
So, lots to like, plot and movie-wise. Or enough, at least, to make a recommendation to see it. So what didn’t work? Well, stick around if you’ll like and I’ll pick some nits. I don’t think any of these should block anyone from seeing the movie but they are flaws, I feel.
I’m going to start with Russell Crowe. I’m a fan of his acting and I give him credit for getting up there and singing this part. That’s not easy. And he does the non-singing portions of Javier’s part very well. He looks like an implacable man, a dangerous man but a just one. But his voice is so soft, too high. When he sings, there’s no passion, no sign that he understands what he’s singing and what it means to his character. That’s bad in a musical. It doesn’t compare to the fire and intensity Phillip Quast, for example, brought to the role. Since Javert is one of my favorite characters of all time, I’ll keep on for just a bit more. One of the things that bothered me about the musical version of Javert is such a little thing but it’s bugged me enough to cost me at least one role. In the play, Javert infiltrates the revolutionaries and then volunteers to spy out the National Guard’s plans. He comes back and tells them a tale. He lies. Javert doesn’t lie. He CAN’T lie. He cannot compromise, that’s what kills him in the end. In the book, Javert does indeed infiltrate the revolutionaries but he’s quietly listening to them when Gavroche discovers him. When he’s caught, he confesses who he is. Because he’s Javert. He is the Law. He can’t lie. So that always enrages me when they do that to him in the musical. Small nit, maybe, but it’s important to me. Anyway, that’s not Russell Crowe’s fault. Honestly, he’s ok, he just isn’t singing this role the way it needs to be sung.
Hugh Jackman was just…off. He’s also a good actor and I’ve seen him do good work. I know he cares about this role and threw himself into it. But his voice also lacks the power of Colm Wilkinson or Alfie Boe, even. I know, they’re professional stage actors and singers, top 1%-ers at the very least. Comparing Hugh Jackman to them may not be fair but…I just felt the lack in most of his scenes and this confused me, knowing that Jackman has a stage background. Everything is too restrained, too internal. He does have some good scenes, the opening for example and the ending. But too often, he seemed to be holding back, to be disconnected from what Valjean should be feeling. He didn’t make me feel it.
The flow of scene to scene and song to song was jerky for most of the movie. There wasn’t the kind of flow the stage productions manage. That’s odd to me, you’d think the editing process and ability to build in interstitials would help but honestly, it worked better as a play. Some of the character development is also accelerated. Valjean has spent, on screen, mere minutes with Marius but he’s singing about him and saying he’s like a son to him. It jars. I realize some compression is required, going from the book to the musical, but it’s too much for me.
I’ve always had a problem with the Revolutionaries, the Friends of the ABC. I’ve never been able to identify with them. I realize that life in France at this time more or less sucked. The song of freedom always get to me, makes me want to cheer. But the whole tearing up the street, building a barricade, fighting the National Guard…I never ‘got’ it. How is this rioting going to help anyone? If they really want a revolution, why aren’t they arranging for other cities to rise up? Their plan seems to be just start a riot and hope the rest of the country rises with them. Not much of a plan. I guess I can be too literal or maybe the Occupy dirtbags has soured me on the cries ‘to arms’. The songs are good, though.
On the whole, I recommend the movie, just to see Anne Hathaway’s performance if nothing else. But the book and the CD’s (I like the 10th anniversary ‘dream cast’ the most) will give a better wholistic experience. Still, hats off for the attempt and desire to bring this story to the screen.