I have seen Les Misérables on the stage twice. I have a healthy portion of it committed to memory from listening to the score many times. The story is that of human life, struggle, and true, pure, self-sacrificing love. The songs, while musically simple, capture the emotions and themes wonderfully.
This film was a rebirth of Les Misérables. An entirely new take on the same material I am so familiar with. The story has a whole new life in my mind, the story of crushing oppression that leads to hatred, undeserved love and forgiveness that leads to ennoblement and simple decency, unbending law that destroys itself rather than abide real humanity, youthful passion that leads to a passionate death, and devotion that leads to redemption.
The other day I listened to the
25th 10th anniversary concert recording while at work. I know every note, inflection, and breath. But, beautiful as the music and the performances are, it has become stale, just listening to singers standing at microphones, no visuals, little emotional content that comes with moving around the stage. It had become a bit flat, frankly. I didn’t really realize that until I saw the film last night.
The film was magnificent. In many ways an improvement on the stage production, thanks to the abilities of the film medium—camera angles, close-up shots, quieter vocals that are more expressive of the full spectrum of emotion.
In the stage production the actors have to convey everything through posture, outsized gestures, voices loud enough to project through the house. The set has to be flexible enough to quickly and easily convert through a host of different sets, indoors and out. A lot is left to the imagination.
In this film it is clear that Cameron Mackintosh finally had the chance to show fully what he always pictured in his mind’s eye but could not possibly stage. And what an amazing glimpse it is. You get some scope of Valjean’s suffering while in prison and his journey and trials once on parole. You see the the grit of the desperately poor in Paris, the style of the wealthy, and the labyrinth of roads that were early nineteenth century Paris. I could not picture those in my head. The set design, artistry, costume, makeup, cinematography, and lighting were all amazing.
But beyond those technical aspects—far beyond those—were the performances.
Again, I am accustomed to the soaring voices of the concert, standing at microphones, performing the songs.
In this film the songs were sung by the actors as they performed, in sets that were live-miced. When Hugh Jackman as prisoner 24601 hauled on that rope with the water splashing over him you could hear the strain in his voice.
When Anne Hathaway as Fantine breaks down in tears after the lowest moment of her life, you can hear the pain in her sobs as she sings through them.
What you get is a performance where everything jibes, and moreso because the cameras are right in the actors’ faces, capturing the emotion in every quiver of a lip, every furrow of the brow, and every flare of the nostrils, every moistened eye.
Hugh Jackman, whose transformation from embittered prisoner 24601 to Jean Valjean, man of compassion and decency, is, in my opinion Oscar-worthy. The scene of his tormented remorse in the bishop’s chapel is riveting. Throughout the entire film, he delivers. He is the new standard of Jean Valjean to me, not because he sang the songs the best, but because he was the man the most.
Anny Hathaway’s Fantine blew me away. She poured such raw emotion and feeling into this character, the conflicted young mother desperate to do something for her child; willing, finally, to do the unthinkable. As with Jackman, her singing was seamlessly integrated into her acting—she was not singing while moving around, she was acting, and singing was part of it. And what a part it was.
Eddie Redmayne gave Marius a new dimension. A strong, strong voice that conveyed intensity without volume through a wide range brought a sensitivity in strength that really brought the conflicted, love-struck character to life.
Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter were spot-on as the Thenardiers. Marvelously mischievous and bawdy, without being ridiculous. Perfect comic relief.
Colm Wilkinson. This was a nice touch. Colm Wilkinson has been the definitive Valjean for decades. In this film he does not play Valjean, the largest role, but plays the role that is arguably most important for the plot, the bishop. His careful and gentle performance in that small but pivotal role, was very nice.
Now for a possible spoiler. If you don’t want any bad news about it stop reading now. Okay, you’ve been warned.
Russell Crowe, whom I have liked in many movies, was either badly miscast as Javert, or the director gave up trying to get him to act through his singing. The man was nasal and plodding and unemotional throughout. Javert is a rigid character, of course, but the underlying turmoil that animates his pharisaical character is the point. It was not present at all. ”Stars” was not triumphal or convicting, and “Javert’s suicide” utterly failed to convey that his character was absolutely ripping apart at the seams. He was the part physically, but every time he sang I had to “hear” Philip Quast in my head to make it work.
In my mind, if this movie is not a serious contender for Best Picture it will be because of Crowe’s performance as Javert.
But overall this was a masterful production.