Les Misérables is stunning.

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.

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10 thoughts on “Les Misérables is stunning.

  1. Tom Hoopes says:

    FWIW, I agree 100% on Russell Crowe. He almost killed the whole first
    half. I disagree 100% on Cohen and Carter. They delivered joyless sleaze
    instead of bawdy fun. The “Father Christmas” scenes are the reason I won’t own this movie and won’t take mature members of my family to it. I
    bet they would have made a ton more money on the movie after opening
    weekend if they left that ugliness out. It breaks my heart, because I
    love the Les Mis story and it needlessly spoils a good production.

    1. Tom Crowe says:

      Fair assessment on the needless and gratuitous sleaze—frankly, I usually skip “Master of the House” even when I’m listening to the recording. I think the joylessness of their bawdy fun fit the overall joylessness of the downtrodden throughout the film, they just responded to it through do-what-you-must mischief. And in spite of the sleaze I did find that imagining of the Master of the House scene, with all of the slight of hand and pickpocketing to be entertaining. It made the arrival of the good and decent man Valjean, who had escaped from the mean life and so was not naive to their ways, that much more stark in such a den of iniquity.

      1. Tom Hoopes says:

        Here’s another good review of it. Good stuff here on the Thenardiers. http://rachelandreesa.wordpress.com/2012/12/28/movie-thoughts-les-miserables/

        1. Tom Crowe says:

          Thanks for sharing that. Good review. But I very, very, very much disagree with her assessment of Jackman’s performance. Had Jackman done in a stage production what he did in this film I would mostly agree, but given the nature of the film medium it was not necessary, and, I believe, would have detracted from the *acting.* When, as in a stage performance, the primary vehicle to convey the details of emotion is the song you’re singing then yes, you have to pack all of the emotion into the performance of the song. In such a case Rachel’s assessment is correct. But in a film where facial expressions and the tiniest change in eyes, nose, lips, tension in the cheeks, forehead, etc., are present and available, if an actor ignores those “tools” of the performance to focus on the phrase of the note being sung he injures the performance. In other words, how one sings for staged performances and how one sings for filmed performance must differ, just as how one acts for one differs from how one acts for the other. They were not performing songs, they were acting in a musical movie. As such, the singing is one aspect of their performance and not a more important one than the rest. I touch on this a little in my review.

          The case of Crowe’s Javert is doubly awful because he was trying to sing like he was on the stage (which is likely why Rachel liked it more than I did) by singing big notes that were drawn out with a minimum of expression in his face and reliance on his body movements—but his performance would have been flat on the stage also because in his drawn-out notes he didn’t express anything, he just sung them. I discovered by listening to some stage performances where he got that “technique.” Terrence Mann, the guy who performed Javert in the original Broadway production sang it almost as ploddingly as Crowe, and with barely more emotive expressiveness in his voice, but with a much nicer voice. I can only guess Mann either consulted on this with Crowe, or Crowe spent a lot of time listening to Mann’s rendition and copied it. Bad move. He should have spent time with Philip Quast, who did Javert in the 10th Anniversary recording and is, in my opinion, the definitive Javert.

          1. Tom Hoopes says:

            I love Quast, too. I wish they had gone with an unknown with voice like his for the movie (instead, they got a guy who looks like him. Can Colin Firth sing? He looks like Quast too). Crowe would have been a great spoken Javert …. They at least should have let him speak some of it.

            Which is the great strength and great weakness of the movie: It’s approach is uncompromising.

            Everybody went to see “Dream Girls” for one song where Jennifer Hudson breaks down (albeit not in one take like Hathaway) and it felt like Hooper told everybody to break down in every ballad (except Javert). It got to be too much … your human defenses start to shut it out (a problem, I think, with The Passion, too. It’s more than we can bear).

            He had one great idea: The long shot with an actor actually singing. But we got too much of that one idea. He needed to change it up somehow.

            Anyway, what do I know. Great movie. Wait for the DVD, rent don’t buy, and skip “Master of the House.”

          2. Tom Crowe says:

            I also noted the tendency for every ballad to have a breakdown. But the reality, I think, is that most of those songs suggested or included a breakdown. But think of it this way: had they included *all* of the music from the score the ballads would be farther apart in time and you would be “ready” for another breakdown. But then the film would have been three-plus hours long. As it is, in order to keep the film under three hours they cut a whole lot of the recitatives, including some of my favorites—Turning, for one. And I liked the use of long shots because it suggested stage production, but a more intimate experience of a stage production, as though you had the opportunity to be on the stage with the actors as they performed.

            I can’t wait for it to come out on Directors Cut (I think they’re actually called “extended versions” these days), which is, I think, the only one I’ll buy.

  2. Philip D. says:

    You can’t do what Javert did and have any emotion. Hurting others for no logical reason is an inhuman act.

    1. Tom Crowe says:

      Phillip D., but that’s where I very much disagree. Everyone who is not incapacitated has emotion, even if very stifled. Javert was not incapacitated in that manner, just massively stifled. He fully believed he *did* have a logical reason for his actions. In fact, his adherence to strict logic, stifling and ignoring “the reasons the heart has that reason cannot understand,” animated him. He did not realize his premises were flawed, and could not abide premises that were so out of kilter to his own, seeing them as an affront to who he saw himself as and the way he needed the world to be for his own prideful desires. His suicide occurred when he could no longer stand seeing someone live according to a higher logic that put the lie to his logic. The bursting forth of this inner turmoil that precedes his suicide shows this. He took Valjean’s actions as “mocking” him, “I am the law and the law is not mocked,” he spits out. “I am reaching, but I fall/And the stars are black and cold/As I stare into the void/Of a world that cannot hold.” These are emotional expressions from someone who realizes the world is not as he *needs* it to be and cannot allow himself to see another way. Valjean had been similar after being in prison, but when the bishop showed him kindness and mercy—showed him another way—he accepted redemption. Javert could have chosen that as well, but chose suicide instead.

  3. Jay Anderson says:

    Nice review.

    But I know that I’m in the overwhelming minority in that I actually liked Crowe’s performance as Javert (and I don’t even like Russell Crowe).

    1. Tom Crowe says:

      Had Crowe played Javert in the non-musical movie version with Liam Neeson as Valjean I would probably have liked him very much. I think he is the part physically and acted the part well when he wasn’t singing. Unfortunately, the musical version of Les Mis is almost entirely singing. I wish Geoffrey Rush were younger and he and Crowe had swapped films as Javert.

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