It was the day after Christmas, and the 10:15 AM show played to a packed house in Sarasota, FL. Such is the drawing power of Les Miserables. The film, directed by Tom Hooper from the beloved theatrical musical of the same name, an adoption itself of the Victor Hugo novel, opened on Christmas Day.
Claude-Michel Schonberg’s music with lyrics by Alain Boubel was first performed theatrically in Paris in 1980. The show closed after a three-month run. In 1983, theatrical producer Cameron Mackintosh was asked if he’d be interested in bringing it to the stage in London. It took two years for the English language version (lyrics by Herbert Kretzmer) to reach London audiences. It opened on October 8th, 1985. As they say, the rest is history.
The show has been performed in forty-two countries, and has been translated into 21 languages. But I am not someone who has had the good fortune to have purchased a ticket (60 million have been sold) to see a theatrical production of Les Miz. As such, I really didn’t know much about it at all. I hadn’t read the Hugo novel either. But I did see a bit of the Les Miserables 25th Anniversary Concert from 2010 when it was broadcast on the televised PBS fund-raiser here last month. I knew the film was scheduled for release on Christmas Day, so I turned off the show after only seeing one or two songs. However, I was hooked and committed to seeing the new film version at the earliest.
As the film opens, we watch a mighty struggle by the forced laborers (convicts) to tow a huge sea-going vessel into a dry dock in Toulon, France. After, the convict # 24601 – Jean Valjean – is granted parole, and freedom, we will later come to understand that he will never be completely free from his jailer, Javert, who promises Valjean, that if he doesn’t follow the letters of his written parole document completely and exactly – Javert will be there to toss him back in prison. Javert offers a chilling reminder: Do not forget my name, do not forget my face. As Valjean departs, the prisoners sing Look Down, all under the watchful eye of Javert. That along with the film’s stirring closing shot of thousands of Parisians on the ramparts, enables us to say that the film is book-ended by images stunning in scope.
There was another magisterial shot of Jean Valjean standing on the top of a promontory overlooking the sea that begins with the camera at his level and then we soar far above him by means of a seventy foot crane shot followed by a seamless transition to a view of the same from a rising helicopter. Yes there were these amazing shots to take your breath away.
But most of the film is shot with the scale down to human levels. And often in tight closeups during many of the songs. Now this particular directorial decision to shoot closeups of the singers has brought forth discussion that has been quite strong both in praise and condemnation. When you see a show in person, you don’t always get a seat in the orchestra level – sometimes you are in the ‘alpine’ regions of the balcony, and you have no chance at all to see facial expressions.You hear just fine, but the distance from the vocalists is not kind, even with opera glasses.
If you have dealt with being seated so high up that cannot visually distinguish the singers’ faces then you know what I’m saying. So Hooper brought his lenses up close and up tight. But that was criticized as well – the faces were not centered, the upper foreheads and/or chins were cut-off. Given that Hooper also decided to film the songs live as opposed to the actors lip-synching to prerecorded music, this was bound to happen. However this decision allowed the actors to have more creativity in their performances. But this is also risky as tight shots may often be too close, and when the singer turns his or her head, the cameras may find themselves slightly out of position.
But I think that the pay-off of the closeups makes the songs all the more powerful. Why concentrate and make mention of a few less than stellar angles? When you see Anne Hathaway’s pain and anguish as the doomed Fantine, when she sings I Dreamed a Dream, you will truly understand the term ‘show-stopper’. Hathaway gave everything she had in this song. She held back nothing. It was a bravura performance.
Many believe that this song alone will garner Hathaway an Oscar nomination. As good as it was, or as great as it was, Hathaway’s Fantine came and went so quickly that we hardly had time to know her. Her factory worker is quickly fired and tossed into the streets with no way to provide for herself or her young daughter Cosette. She is forced to sell her hair, some teeth, and her body to survive. But she survives just long enough to contract tuberculosis and dies.
It is for that reason that while I concede that it is a show-stopper, I personally do not call this song the highlight of the show. But we cannot fault Hathaway, director Tom Hooper, or his screenplay writer William Nicholson for that. The scope of the film is at least 20 years, so characters do die, and grow from children to adults.
But getting back to the closeups – I think they worked fine for Hugh Jackman’s Jean Valjean but not so well for Russell Crowe’s Javert. But there is a reason for this too. Javert’s single-minded pursuit of Valjean, who broke his parole and chose to become a fugitive, is never explained in the film beyond the single word ‘duty’. His obsessive pursuit narrows the character’s story arc, and makes him a far less interesting character.
Valjean’s character begins as a prisoner in a near hopeless situation. But he finds that the kindness of the bishop allows him to turn a page. He experiences redemption. We like looking at him because he is a character with a heart of light and goodness. Javert is dark, and brooding. While Crowe brings the right amount of gravitas to his performance, his singing is no more than tolerable. He can carry a tune – within a limited range, but his baritone voice lacks strength.
Jackman is another story. Here he is an everyman whose sole crime was to steal a loaf of bread. Javert explains that Valjean’s sentence for the theft was five years, but the rest of his long incarceration came from an attempt to escape. But he does find redemption and later he has become not only a successful business man with hundreds of people depending on him for their livelihoods, and also he is mayor of the town. We admire him now, whereas we had felt sorry for him earlier. We especially like him when he promises Fantine that Cosette will be cared for and raised under his protection.
That takes us to the middle part of the story where we have Cosette, the young waif, working for the vile inn-keepers, a couple known as the Thenardiers. They’re played by Helena Bonham Carter and Sasha Baron Cohen. While they are truly a gruesome twosome, they do provide most of the film’s meager humor. Of course, their highlight moment is to sing Master of the House – which brings down the house. Valjean will purchase the waif Cosette from them, and he will come to the attention of Javert once more.
The last third of the film finds us in Paris, another 10 years later. Cosette is now a beautiful young woman played by Amanda Seyfried. The time is the mid 1830’s, and while the French Revolution occurred 50 years prior, conditions for the poor remain unspeakable. A group of revolution-minded students decide to take a stand against the monarchy which has regained power.
I found this the most enjoyable part of the film. The wonderful work by Eddie Redmayne as Marius, Aaron Tveit as Enjolras, and Daniel Huttlestone as the street urchin, Gavroche, were all terrific. But the high point of this section, as well as the entire film, were two songs that featured Samantha Barks as Eponine. When she sings of unrequited love in the stunning solo, On My Own, your heart will break.
Her last song is called A Little Fall of Rain which is a song guaranteed to produce tears.
For my money, Barks is the highlight of the film. While she has performed in theatrical productions of Les Miserables, including the 25th Anniversary Concert version of the show which is available on DVD, this was her first screen performance. I am told that she beat out Taylor Swift for the role of Eponine.
This is a powerful movie that will sweep you away. This is not to say this is a perfect film, but I think it is as good, if not better than any musical I’ve ever seen. As Barks reached the conclusion of the song, On My Own, a song performed in a light rain; not only was she wet, but I doubt there was a dry eye in the house. Everyone’s face became wet – including my own.
For my money, if you really want to see an unforgettable musical film, this is the one. Do You Hear the People Sing has never been more true than here in Les Miserables.