It’s hard to understand why it took more than twenty-five years for the musical Les Misérables to make it to the screen. Perhaps Cameron Macintosh (producer of the theatrical musical) thought it was more profitable simply to keep the musical continuously on tour, and it almost always is on tour, including most recently here in Washington, D.C. for its umpteenth appearance. (In fact it debuted in America at the Kennedy Center before moving to Broadway.) I remember first seeing the musical in the early 1990s. The stage bill announced it would be coming to movie theaters soon. Clearly that deal fell apart. Perhaps Macintosh finally realized he could have it both ways. This movie, Les Misérables, will simply stoke interest in seeing the musical on stage, and visa versa.
If you haven’t seen the musical on the stage, you can at least now see it on the screen. If you have seen it on the stage, prepare yourself for the considerable shock of seeing it on digital film. The transition can be a bit rough at times, particularly if you are used to powerful operatic voices. You won’t find much of that in the movie, and you may find yourself cringing at times by just how badly some of the singing comes across. In particular, you may find yourself wishing that Russell Crowe had the male equivalent of Marnie Nixon, the woman who actually sang the part of Eliza Doolittle for Audrey Hepburn in the movie musical My Fair Lady. Russell Crowe’s singing should have been dubbed.
In fact, one of the few things to dislike about this movie is Russell Crowe’s portrayal of the obsessive Inspector Javert. Javert is definitely a stiff upper lip type, and Crowe at least has that aspect down correctly. But his performance is too flat and unemotional. Fans of the musical will cry, from anguish and not from joy, when Crowe tries to sing songs like “Stars” and it just falls flat.
Director Tom Hooper, who gave us the academy award winner King’s Speech, gets to flex his directorial mojo tackling this challenging musical. One of his key decisions was to record the singing live and then go back and add the orchestration. The benefit is that this allows the performers to act without worrying about matching a prerecorded score. The downside is that this sort of singing is less operatic and more breathy. When an otherwise fine actor like Russell Crowe simply cannot sing, the result is like an over-modulated sound; it is just grating. The same is also true with Isabelle Allen, who plays the young Cosette. It’s forgivable in the case of a child. In the case of a lead actor like Russell Crowe, it is not.
Is this a reason to give the movie a pass? Not really. Aside from these minor imperfections, Hooper does a great job of transitioning the musical to the screen. The acting in some parts is so overwhelmingly good that you can overlook the Russell Crowe miscasting. Hugh Jackman is terrific as Jean Valjean, but the real scene-stealer is Anne Hathaway as Fantine, Cosette’s mother. Here Hooper validates his approach of recording the singing live, because through the intimacy of a close up you can get a much richer acting than you would otherwise.
Paris in the 19th century is realized quite well, although it was actually shot in an English studio. The poverty and filth of the time is also captured with uncomfortable authenticity. You can almost smell the shit as Valjean carries the wounded Marius through a Paris sewer. Hooper provides an amazingly intimate look into the life of the poor people of France, with the necessary comic relief provided by the Thenardiers, played by Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter. Baron Cohen and Bonham Carter are perhaps logical choices for these parts, as they can easily ooze the sliminess these roles require, but perhaps they were too easy a choice. There have been so many fine Thenardiers’ on stage that certainly one of these actors could have done an even better job.
The ancillary parts are stocked with terrific character actors, most of whom I have no quibbles with their performance. My only concern was one I see frequently in Eponine: she is played by too pretty an actress, in this case Samantha Barks. Gavroche, the spunky street urchin, is a hard role to get right. Fortunately, Hooper made a terrific choice casting Daniel Huttlestone. Overall, Hooper does a great job with directing this tricky work, supplementing songs somewhat, providing a gritty and authentic feel to the movie, and casting hosts of ancillary characters that fluidly and realistically move through their numbers, such as the women in Valjean’s factory. The intensity of the students in their doomed parts as revolutionaries is also appreciated. We get energetic and deeply humane portraits of pivotal characters like Marius (Eddie Redmayne) and the leader Enjolras (Aaron Tveit). We also get plenty of chemistry when Marius meets the adult Cosette (Amanda Seyfried).
Whether seen in the theater or on the screen, this is a tearjerker. It left me crying at the end, even though I certainly knew all of the plot and the songs. To those few who are not familiar with either the story or the musical, it should come as a great treat. You would be wise to pack an extra handkerchief. It seemed to wow our audience, who applauded at the end of it.
Still, Russell Crowe does grate and is simply miscast in this movie, so impartiality requires me to dock it a couple tenths of a point. 3.2 stars on my four-point scale.