Main cast: Hugh Jackman (Jean Valjean), Russell Crowe (Inspector Javert), Anne Hathaway (Fantine), Amanda Seyfried (Cosette), Eddie Redmayne (Marius Pontmercy), Samantha Barks (Éponine), Aaron Tveit (Eljoras), George Blagden (Grantaire), Daniel Huttlestone (Gavroche), Colm Wilkinson (Bishop of Digne), Sacha Baron Cohen (Thénardier), and Helena Bonham Carter (Madame Thénardier).
Director: Tom Hooper
If you are one of those few who have not heard of the plot of Les Misérables, well, let me try to give a synopsis without spoiling the whole thing. The story is one of those that have been spoiled so openly, but I’ll be nice and just say that this is a soap opera set in early 19th century France, when the country is still bleeding from the aftermath of the Revolution.
We have Jean Valjean, our hero who is released from prison once his sentence is up, only to break parole in order for Victor Hugo to make a social statement about how France is a tearjerker bed of inhumane bastards and weeping angels back in those days. Inspector Javert is the guy who pursues Valjean with a tenacity that defies all reason because he’s the original Terminator. Then there are the lovestruck young swains constantly singing about love found and love misbegotten, some poor woman who is forced to prostitute herself while singing about how pitiful her life is, some thieves, some kids who think they can start a new revolution, and… really, most people just remember the music, thanks to the long-lasting musical that gave rise to at least three hundred ways people all over the world mangle the pronunciation of the title of the story.
There have been a few movie adaptations of Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables, so do we need another one? Well, if it’s co-produced by Cameron Mackintosh and features appearances by Colm Wilkinson and Frances Rufelle, and it features Hugh Jackman in what is supposed to be his element, why, yes, yes, yes.
Okay, hold that thought. While Mr Jackman turns in one of the strongest performances in this movie, his singing is… well, let’s just say that he can sing, oh yes, but it seems to me that he strains pretty hard to reach some of the high notes in his solo pieces. Bring Him Home is pretty brutal to listen to, mostly because his vibrato lacks the richness I’ve come to associate with the men that play Jean Valjean in the musical adaptations of this story. Maybe it’s just my familiarity with the rich timbre and fullness of the voices that gave Jean Valjean life in the past, but I feel that Mr Jackman’s tenor, while adequate, is missing that something that gives his solo pieces the heartbreaking resonance they normally contain.
But oh, Mr Jackman certainly brings his role to life in other ways. His face is marvelously expressive, and what he may not convey through his often grating vibrato comes loud and clear through his facial expressions. This brings me to one reason why this movie can work so much better than the musical. In this medium, I am given a good and clear glimpse of the actors’ faces, and the movie sometimes sacrifices melody for emotions – Anne Hathaway’s version of I Dreamed a Dream is broken by sobs and gasps, but while this piece may not be as melodic as could be, it’s a shattering moment to watch as tears streak down Fantine’s face. Likewise, Eddie Redmayne’s Empty Chairs at Empty Tables is both haunting and excruciating to watch and listen because of the anguish that is apparent on Mr Redmayne’s tear-streaked face as he tries to pull himself together for the song.
But it’s not just tears and drama. Aaron Tveit’s Eljoras sure looks and sounds right for the part, although Mr Tveit’s vocals, just like Mr Jackman’s, lack the fullness and vibrancy I normally associate with the voices of the men that play these roles. Oh, and my goodness, Ms Hathaway is absolutely gorgeous as Fantine, and she sounds great too.
The musical relies on the melodies and the words to tell the story, as often the members of the audience may not be able to see the actors’ facial expressions. In this movie, the cast pull double duty to make sure every note, while not always pitch perfect, is a thrust through the heart, and boy, does the pain feel so good as it makes me feel, feel alive.
Well, except for Russell Crowe. He plays Javert, one of the most complex characters in the story, and yet, he pretty much sleepwalks through the whole thing. Worse, he sings like he has marbles in his mouth, and he is completely lost in One Day More despite having a solo in the whole melodious cacophony of that piece. Stars and Javert’s final solo song (which I wouldn’t name as the title is a spoiler), two of the most memorable songs in the musical, are completely flaccid here. Seriously, I could weep like Fantine three times over just remembering what Mr Crowe did to Stars.
Back to the songs, let’s see what doesn’t work. These songs are composed and written for the stage, so sometimes, they don’t work so well in the film medium. The duet between Javert and Valjean, The Confrontation, will go mostly unappreciated as the stormy juxtaposition of Valjean’s increasing desperation and Javert’s stoic coldness is lost in the frantic action taking place in the scene. One Day More suffers from the same problem of the bustle in the scene distracting from the song – and more importantly, the stories in that song. The Thérnadiers should shine in their very busy scenes, but again, the frantic action distracts from the clever wordsmith in their songs. Oh, and their songs are actually cut short or removed altogether – I guess there can never be too much emo whining, tears, and martyred deaths in this movie, heh.
The loss of the impact of these songs can affect how people that are not familiar with the musical view characters like Javert and Cosette. One thing you have to know about this musical is that, barring Jean Valjean who is the anchor of the whole thing, the more shallow the characters are, the more warbling epic songs about death and drama they will have in the whole thing. Hence, Fantine, who is actually a one-dimensional martyr, having some of the most heartbreaking songs. Also, Éponine and Marius, two shallow love-struck twits, also having heartbreaking solo pieces. To be fair, though, this movie tries to beef up Marius by emphasizing how he is a privileged youth who eventually chooses to live by his ideals. Still, he’s shallow.
But of course, people remember the tragic love drama of Fantine and Éponine while it is easy to dismiss Cosette as a banal love-struck twit when her songs actually reveal a very lonely and sheltered young lady who desperately tries to remember the things about her past. Likewise, it is too easy in this movie to dismiss Javert as a whackjob, due to a combination of awful vocals from Mr Crowe and too much distracting action in key moments, completely missing out on the fact that Javert is a broken man who is the way he is because following the rules is the only way he can keep sane. Valjean entertains doubts, and in the process finds the ability to let go of his hate and start to love. Javert, on the other hand, closes his mind to doubts because he has to believe that he is right in everything he does, with tragic consequences to everyone and himself. Without the intimacy of the musical setting that allows the audience to listen to the words of the songs without too much distraction, this movie is sometimes far less impactful than the musical.
But would I suggest that people watch this film? If you love the musical and you are willing to accept some, er, vocal oddities on the lead actors’ parts, then you may enjoy how this movie sets those songs in context that often captures the rapturous melodrama of the musical in breathtaking ways. The opening scene is awesome, and the scenes at the barricade capture the ideology – and the tragedy – of the young students’ cause better than any set in a stage. As I’ve also mentioned, the movie brings a powerful visual context for the emotions in the songs very well. I personally don’t think I can listen to Empty Chairs at Empty Tables the same way again.
If you are completely new to the whole thing, watch this movie. Then, listen to the soundtrack of the musical (the original cast recording is always a good bet), pay attention to the words with the help of the lyrics printed in the CD booklet, and then watch the movie again. The movie is quite incomplete on its own if one wants to experience the full magnificence of the songs, the melodrama, the pathos, and the whole glorious nine yards of heartbreaking cheese that is Les Misérables.