Friday, December 28, 2012

Les Miserables: The 10-Tissue Movie

Turning a beloved, breathtaking stage musical into a film is a brave undertaking, at best. It's very difficult for devoted theater geeks not to have exaggerated expectations, but we are rarely satisfied with the casting, acting and directing of film versions of our favorite musicals. 

I tried to avoid reading reviews, positive or negative, before seeing "Les Miserables". I've been a fan of this show for over 20 years, I've seen it on stage a few times, listened to the London and Broadway cast recordings countless times, and recently raved about Alfie Boe's performance as Jean ValJean in the recorded 25th Anniversary Concert version. I was nervous about a few things. My primary concern is always the vocals and orchestrations living up to the experience of a great Broadway soundtrack, but I was also concerned about the casting choices, as I always am with a musical... 

Luckily, the casting choices for "Les Mis" were excellent. Well... mostly. I was most impressed with Anne Hathaway, who blew me away with both her acting and singing. I wasn't sure what to expect from her, but she delivered a Fantine who was beautiful and tragic, touching and heartbreaking. My brother says there is Oscar buzz for her, and I hope there is-- it would be well deserved.

Hugh Jackman was solid as Jean Valjean-- his singing can't compete with Alfie Boe, but what he lacked in vocal power he made up for in raw, honest emotion. The costume/makeup people did a fantastic job with aging him through the movie, and with the stark difference between chain-gang Valjean and Monsieur le Mayor Valjean. I was a little disappointed with a few of the songs that are supposed to be show-stoppers just not quite reaching the level of performance I'm used to for this character, but his performance overall was really very good.

Russell Crowe was, as I expected (but hoped to be surprised otherwise): the weakest link. His Javert was strong and powerful at times, but at others stiff and inexpressive. I was surprised, actually, at the lack of facial expression-- I thought Crowe was a better actor than that. His singing, though, was the biggest disappointment. At first, during "Stars", I thought maybe his subtle, relaxed style was a fascinating difference from the belting power of most Javert performances, but then he would build up to a big ending note and there would be an obvious deep breath and struggle to even hit the note that was distracting. For people who don't already know and love the show, his performance will likely be just fine, but for folks like me, who have been singing along to this soundtrack for 20+ years, it was... unsatisfying.

The young performers easily stole the show-- Amanda Seyfried was perfect as Cosette-- her lilting, floating soprano and innocent, wide-eyed beauty were enchanting. Eddie Redmayne was unfamiliar to me, but his Marius was excellent-- precisely what the role needed. And Samantha Barks, who played Eponine on the concert version as well, was even better here-- emotional, beautiful and wretched. Her teeny-tiny waist was a distraction, though. How can anyone that skinny get enough air to sing with such power? 

The three of them singing "A Heart Full of Love" was probably the best number in the show. Which is unfortunate, because usually "Bring Him Home" or "Stars" or "Do You Hear the People Sing" are the show-stoppers. But the solos were somewhat weaker than I'm used to and the ensemble pieces? Well...

The ensemble songs "At the End of the Day", "Red and Black", "Do You Hear the People Sing" and "One Day More" were surprisingly deflated somewhere on the road from stage to screen. When you are in the room with a "Les Mis" cast harmonizing and belting out those songs, it's amazing. It makes you want to stand and cheer. It is inspiring, and enchanting and breath-taking. But onscreen it was slightly less so. I'm not sure why. The orchestrations were good, the singing was great, but the power of the experience was somewhat lessened.

I am overly-critical, according to my 16-year old son (who LOVED "The Hobbit", which I just liked..) and I have been a fan of "Les Miserables" for over 20 years. I've seen it onstage twice, listened to every incarnation I can get my hands on, multiple times, and I absolutely fell in love with Alfie Boe's Valjean on the 25th Anniversary Concert version. I know every song-- the whole show, by heart. I noticed every lyric they removed or added or changed in this film. Not in a negative way, I just noticed. Actually, cutting much of the Thenardier's songs was a big improvement. But I was ready to go either way with this movie-- either I would hate it, or I would love it. 

Overall, I enjoyed it very much. I cried a lot. Maybe you would call it weeping... When Fantine sang "Come to Me", my son turned to me and whispered, "Mom, you're crying more than she is!" I was even worse during the finale, which always touches me deeply. I liked this movie a lot. I love the music, and it was fascinating to see the grit and grime and horror and beauty of France in the early 1800s up close and vivid onscreen. The scenery, costuming and makeup were all superb. The orchestration was fantastic and the performances were amazing. If I weren't so critical and so deeply attached to this musical, I probably wouldn't have found so much to criticize. 

Sensitivity notes: 
  • The "Lovely Ladies" and "I Dreamed a Dream" scenes are brutal. There is blatant sexuality in the lyrics and though it's not especially graphic, we do watch Fantine's first foray into the world of prostitution. It's very, very sad and horribly stark, but no worse than what you might see onstage. Lots of cleavage and gesturing.
  • The Thenardiers are just as naughty and disgusting as you might expect. They are well played, and provide some measure of comic relief, though M. Thenardier filling a customer's wine bottle with his own urine and then the man drinking it is decidedly unfunny to me, and turned my stomach more than entertained. They were well played by Helena Bonham Carter and Sascha Baron Cohen, though. I was grateful the director seemed to keep them on a tight leash-- they were over-the-top (as they should be), but did not run away with their scenes, which they easily could have done.
  • The sewers? Horrifyingly disgusting. Beyond gross. But true to the story.
  • Javert's suicide is also brutal. Should I describe what they did? There isn't blood and gore, he jumps into the Seine, which is what happens in the story, but in the movie, there are these concrete walls in the water and he hits one. The sound effects make this... shocking.
  • The story is so sad and distressing, I won't be taking my younger kids (ages 10 and 13) to see this movie. It is far more brutal (I find myself using that word a lot here) onscreen than onstage, and I do what I can to preserve their innocence.
If you love this musical, you're probably already planning to go. If you don't like musicals, don't waste your money. It is all singing. It flows more naturally that way, than in a show where people seem to randomly burst into song, so those who tolerate musicals well might like it. I thought it was very good. I will likely be buying this on Blu-Ray in the future.

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