In this review, special guest writer and musical-watcher Ceadsearc shares his astute and analytical observations about the film version of Les Misérables.
Les Misérables has long been one of my favourite musicals, and when news broke that they were going to release a movie version, I became rather excited for the chance to see what a Les Misérables movie would be like. The trailers that were released were just astounding – to see Anne Hathaway sing “I dreamed a dream” with the epic backdrop was wonderful advertising for the movie. But of course, we all know that movie-musicals are a mixed bag. At their best, they transcend the limitations of a musical – think “The Sound of Music” – but at their worst, they are pale imitations of what the musical can bring (“Phantom” comes to mind) as they forsake the advantages of the medium of the musical (the audience interaction, etc) and yet not have the realism and the beautiful cinematography that a good film has. So how did Les Misérables fare?
I thought the movie was a competent adaptation, although it certainly did not live up to the musical. Moreover, certain directional choices were strange. One of my key gripes was the pace of the movie, which was much too fast. Scenes just moved furiously into the next, and there was just too little dialogue in between the songs – particularly in the second half of the movie. Granted, there was a necessity to keep the movie not too long (and it was already 2 and a half hours), but it was almost an unnatural, relentless, pacing.
My second key gripe was the camera work – I just did not understand why there was a need to have so many close-ups of the characters singing. At certain junctures, it worked, such as when Anne Hathaway was emoting as Fantine (she put in a really good performance, it has to be said), but by the end of the show, I was just tired of seeing them sing into the camera when all you see on screen is their face and nothing else. Surely the director had missed the opportunity to use the camera to shoot various angles, formations, etc. to keep things interesting.
One of the things that the production team stressed about this musical was that the actors were actually singing live – accompanied presumably by a piano of sorts – instead of singing to a pre-recorded track. If that was the case, the pianist or accompanist left much to be desired. Having played for, and written for musicals, I can tell you that the difference between musical music and pop music is that, for musical music, the phrases are of irregular tempo – the beat is not kept constant and it would be a crime to do so. Yet, in this movie, the beat seems to have been kept extremely constant even though the accompanist would have accompanied the singer “live”. This leads to situations where the singers in the show would “wait” for the music to finish the requisite beats before coming in on the next phrase, which is an extremely unnatural way of singing. It would have been much better to allow the singers to ebb and flow according to the natural rhythms of the songs, and then to fit the orchestra with it later. Also, I felt that the orchestration could have been better. Comparing the music of the movie to the music of the 10th anniversary concert is a no-contest: the latter’s orchestration is far richer with brasses, lusher strings, etc. which simply was not present in the movie. A disappointment, from that angle.
The singers by and large were good – Anne Hathaway’s performance was brilliant, she can really sing, and can probably be counted for an Oscar nomination. I was also impressed with Samantha Barks as Eponine – although it was a role she’s very familiar with having played Eponine in the West End production – but even so she was very convincing. Amanda Seyfried was good as Cosette, and so was Eddie Redmayne as Marius – the performance of “in my life” and “A heart full of love” was rich with youthful charm and warmth and the setting was appropriate. Hugh Jackman as Wolverine Jean Valjean was quite convincing – although the image of Wolverine keeps coming back (sadly). The only problem was Russell Crowe as Javert – Crowe did not seem to possess the determination and hunger to “do the right thing” that a person playing Javert requires, and his voice was seriously not up to the mark – thin and strained. A simple search on YouTube with Philip Quast’s version will show you how Javert is supposed to be portrayed – that majestic, unflinching, character, with a voice to match, not one of a sissy. Gavroche was brilliant – very adorable; and by and large the majority of the ‘student leaders’ were convincing in their role. The same could not be said for Sacha Baron Cohen whose potrayal of Monsieur Thernadier was far too muted for my liking, as compared to the potrayal in the musical. Apparently he was struck with a bad throat and hence could not deliver the lines (as the singing had to be done live), but still – I was expecting a far more animated performance from him. Helena wasn’t too bad, though.
The set at the beginning was excellent – lush scenery, a picturesque chapel, etc. – although, unfortunately, the second half was not as good. Paris in the 1800s could have looked more realistic, and the gun scenes could have featured far more smoke, guns, big effects, etc. The “inns”, the buildings where the student leaders died under gunfire, etc. all looked rather CGI-like and could have, honestly, looked far more realistic.
The thing about Les Misérables is that it has a very heavy subject matter with heavy themes, such as mercy vs justice, mercy creating love, compassion, freedom to love, and so on. The musical succeeded because, ironically, it knew when to show restraint, not to overwhelm the audience emotionally but to capture them subtly such that, by the time the ending scene appears, Valjean’s death and the famed words “To love another person is to see the face of God” is sung, the audience is touched and hearts are warmed that they tacitly agree with what the musical is saying and then the entire last song “Do you hear the people sing (Reprise)” can become something that the audience enthusiastically agrees with. In the movie, there’s already so much emotion running throughout that by the time the ending is there, one is mentally and emotionally drained from feeling so much throughout the entire movie. Maybe it’s just me, but the build-up could have been managed far better.
Overall, Les Misérables the movie was a flawed though competent adaptation.
Ceadsearc is a coffee-guzzling, big-time foodie who has a very discerning palate, but also takes the time to enjoy the other finer things in life, like the occasional theatre production or movie. Do visit his food blog at http://www.thefoodieinme.blogspot.com/, which never fails to give me good recommendations.