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Look, I like Les Miserables, okay? I saw the original run four times. I’ve watched the anniversary concerts. I was one of three Jean Valjeans in a recent informal, multi-cast stumble-through. I’ve been known to lead sing-alongs of “One Day More” with my ukulele (I swear to god, it works). My fondness for Les Miz may have evolved into ironic love a bit over the years, but I’m a fan. It’s a terrific show, a wonderful score, and an important piece of theatre. I’d seen the other film adaptation of the novel, but after 20 minutes of thinking “they’re not singing, so why do I care?” I turned it off, and listened to the cast album again. Nothing but love for you, Les Miz.
So, when it was announced that the epic musical would now be an epic major motion picture, I was excited. Some of my New York theatre friends planned a cosplay trip to go see it, and I put together Mme Thernardier out of my closet, and joined them. Our spirits were high. Then the film began, and our spirits sank lower with every passing minute.
It’s not that there aren’t good things about this film, because there definitely are. It’s a compelling story, and like I said, the score is gorgeous. And it’s not like the cast they got wasn’t talented AF, because they all were—even the ones who were terribly, horribly miscast (I’ll get to that in a minute). No, the fault of this train wreck rests on the person who was driving the train, Tom Hooper.
It’s not like Hooper’s untalented either. The King’s Speech is fabulous, and remains one of the best suspense films of all time (that’s a joke, but really—weren’t you chewing your nails off during that last scene?). But Tom, sweetie…stay away from musicals. They are not your wheelhouse (I think we’re all having Cats nightmares already, just from the trailers). Especially not this one. I get that it’s a story about an horrific war, and people who are, well, miserable. But Tom, if you wanted that level of grit, you should have just adapted the novel. It’s not like there isn’t plenty of grit in the musical, but Les Miserables is not supposed to leave me with the same feelings as Boys Don’t Cry.
I have always felt that this film could have worked in the hands of Sir Kenneth Branagh. Branagh’s directorial style is big, lush, and the kind of extra that a musical needs. It could have embraced the genre and been epic, without crossing the line into camp. In Les Miserables, there is no room for subtlety, and Branagh could have really rocked that. Plus, he would have been less about distracting, unnecessarily-complicated camera work, and extreme, intrusive closeups.
One of the big selling points of this film was the big deal they made about how all the singing was done live, instead of the usual prerecorded. For the life of me, I have never understood why they thought this was a good idea, and why they made such a point of bragging about it. It may have spared the actors the hassle of having to lip-synch accurately, but that’s it on the plus side. Live singing did this film way more harm than good. Case in point, Hugh Jackman. I love him to bits, everyone does, and he is a wonderful performer and a wonderful singer, and he is a baritone.
Jean Valjean is one of the most range-y, power tenor-y roles in the whole lexicon of musical theatre. To lower the keys to accommodate someone who doesn’t have the vocal chops is an insult to the role. And I’m pretty sure Jackman knew this too. A studio setting would have helped him with those high notes that he doesn’t have, and he wouldn’t have come across as strained and terrified because he knows he’s faking it. Couldn’t they have cast Hugh Jackman as Javert instead? That’s a role he could have legitimately rocked. And besides, then we could have been spared Russell Crowe, who lived up to everyone’s expectations of mediocrity, despite him having the occasional awesome low note.
I don’t have to go over the plot, do I? It can pretty much be summed up by one of my favourite quotes from The Good Place…”Everyone in this story sucks and belongs in the Bad Place. The thief is bad. The officer chasing him is bad. All the whiny prostitutes are bad. Plus, they’re all French, so they’re going to the Bad Place automatically.” Jean Valjean steals bread to feed his family, spends 20 years in prison, gets out, misses a wisdom roll, steals silver, finds God, becomes Mayor, adopts a daughter, there’s a revolution and lots of people die, daughter gets married, Jean Valjean dies, the end. We all know that much, right? Cool.
One thing I will give this film as something it did right is its book. They rearranged a few scenes and events to make more sense chronologically, which is definitely good. They added a scene in which Valjean and Javert meet up again, just before the Fantine incident, which is way better than both of them being there as an unbelievable coincidence. And lord knows it is a pretty film. One thing I love is all the Masonic imagery (I’m a Freemason, so I appreciate that sort of thing). I often wonder if Hooper actually got it, or if he was just doing what Victor Hugo (who did get it) had done.
Hooper does these great big impressive shots that rival Spielberg on cinematic chest-beating. That said, hand-held shakycam is rarely a good idea outside of a cop show, and some of the lyrics were changed for no discernible reason, which is horribly distracting. And one of my biggest pet peeves about films that are set in a country that doesn’t speak English—why does everyone have a British accent? If we can take for granted that they are constantly breaking into song, why can’t we take for granted that they are actually speaking French, and everyone can have whatever accent they normally have?
I will never ever say that Anne Hathaway didn’t turn in a killer performance as the pathetic Fantine, young mother-turned-prostitute, whose death is one of the sadder ones in musical theatre. Hathaway’s fantastic, her voice is lovely, and you can tell she’s pouring her heart and soul into the role. Not going to lie, my favourite thing about her in this film was the way she smacked down reporters when they asked about her extreme weight loss. Her performance of “I Dreamed a Dream” is heartwrenching enough to bring us back into Boys Don’t Cry territory, and this is one of the first big swings that Hooper really misses. My dude, you are making a movie. Take advantage of your medium.
The entire second verse of the song is literally a flashback, Fantine singing about when her life didn’t suck. You’d have trouble conveying this on stage, but with film, that whole verse could have been a flashback sequence! And wouldn’t seeing that make her real life even sadder? But no, it was clearly more important to film the whole thing with the camera like seven inches from her face, so we can count every pore, and feel like even we are violating this poor woman. It’s bad enough that she’s kind of the resident “woman in the refrigerator” of the story (or not, depending on how you look at it, I’ve heard arguments for both sides), but did she need to get fridged with a camera up her nose?
Choices like that on Hooper’s part continue throughout the film, and get more and more frustrating. Maybe if I went in blind, never having seen or heard the show before, it would have been different. But come on, Tom. Jean Valjean is supposed to out himself as an ex-con with an impressive high note, and the revealing of a prison tattoo on his bare chest. You hear me, Tom? An excuse to have Hugh Jackman take his shirt off is literally in the source material, and anyone will tell you the many ways in which shirtless Hugh Jackman makes everything better. But no, we get neither the great chest nor the great high note. Holy Missed Opportunity, Batman (Jackman).
The confrontation between Valjean and Javert is one of the most beloved bits of the musical (don’t tell me you don’t love singing along to it, I won’t believe you), but here, it tanks hard. It’s not that they sing it particularly badly, but they set it to lots of badly choreographed fighting, which only serves as a distraction. And then later, there’s this whole superfluous chase sequence that winds up in an abbey, making me wonder if the Von Trapps were hiding behind a different corner than Valjean was.
Apart from Jackman and Crowe, I didn’t have too much of a problem with the rest of the casting. Sure, you wanted to make Mean Girls jokes every time Cossette came on the screen. Eddie Redmayne doesn’t do it for me as Marius, but neither he nor Marius ever did it for me much anyway (would I like Marius more if he were played by Hadestown‘s Reeve Carney? Maybe). Aaron Tveit absolutely smoulders as Enjolras, and you could tell who the musical theatre nerds in the audience were, because we cheered every time he showed up. My faves were Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter as the Thernardiers. It did my heart good to see the two of them being the funny they hadn’t been allowed to be in Sweeney Todd.
I know there was a huge sigh of relief when Samantha Barks (from the then West End production) was cast as Eponine instead of Taylor Swift, but really, given what the role is, would Swift have been that bad? Teenage me identified with Eponine as much as every other pathetic teenage girl who crushed a boy who wasn’t interested in her. But really, apart from providing us with a song that got played out over the years in piano bars and reviews, she’s a nothing of a character. Yes, I’m told she’s better in the book. But in the musical, she’s not even interesting enough to fridge.
In addition to the pretentious camera work, a lot of the staging is problematic. I mean, okay, a big group number like “One Day More”, where lots of different people are singing lots of different things from lots of different directions, is going to be awkward on film, no matter what you do. I’m thankful Hooper didn’t resort to splitting the screen a la the “Tonight Quintet” in West Side Story. In a musical that is in such hard denial that it’s a musical, the few times the staging involves actual choreography feels weird.
When Gavroche is shot, he is supposed to be running around, hard to hit, gathering up stray ammo. This has Gavroche (who is really quite good, and thank GOD that they cut the majority of his song “Little People”, like most productions do) dash out in front of the barricade, and stand there like he’s got a target painted on his forehead. And I understand that Enjolras is supposed to die upside down on the barricade, but having him fall halfway out a window instead makes him look like a broken marionette. Hardly a dignified end for such a fabulous character, and did I mention he smoulders?
“Bring Him Home” is one of the lovelier songs in the show. It’s a prayer, and it was written so as to show off the incredible falsettos of Colm Wilkinson, Alfie Boe, and any of those other hardcore tenors who have played Jean Valjean over the years (as a complete aside, watch four of those guys do the song as a quartet sometime, you will die). However, Hugh Jackman is (say it with me) a baritone, with virtually no falsetto.
Even with the song transposed to a lower key, he doesn’t have the high notes. Never mind Wolverine, I think Jackman’s most heroic portrayal is his attempt to take on this song. He knows it’s out of his range, and however painful it was for me to watch, I bet it was more painful for him to sing. This is another one of those times when a studio recording would have been really helpful, since I think he probably does have potential for falsetto, if only it had been properly cultivated and recorded.
Lord knows Les Miserables is a pretty film, when it’s not trying to rub grit in your face or show you the content of Russell Crowe’s pores. Points to them for including the historically accurate elephant statue. But again, this film’s refusal to lean into the fact that it’s a musical isn’t doing it any favours. Maybe everyone is intimidated by the live singing, but most of them are undersinging everything, and to what real purpose? Subtlety? Again, subtlety has no place in this particular musical. And if the stage version can show us Marius’s dead friends when Marius is literally singing a song to them, why couldn’t the film have done? It’s not like Hooper can’t do un-subtle. All that Javert balancing act tightrope walking that he does—we get it, it’s symbolism.
The finale of Les Miserables is hard to ruin. It’s got some of the most moving music ever written, and stirring lyrics, and it is big and epic and glorious. And you know what? It’s okay here. This film can at least say it goes out on a high note…just not one sung by Hugh Jackman. Valjean lies dying, and they were clever enough to find an excuse to bring back the Bishop from Act 1. The Bishop is played by Colm Wilkinson, the original Jean Valjean, and at the then-age of 68, he’s still got better falsetto than Jackman will ever have.
Valjean has a deathbed vision of the Bishop, the man who set him on the path of righteousness all those years ago. And Wilkinson appears, and is like “I got this, kid. Hold my beer.” At least they let him die in a chapel, so the room had good acoustics. The shade of Fantine appears to escort him to his heavenly respite, and Eponine’s appearance there was cut. It never made sense anyway that she would be there, but I missed her harmony. I sang it from the audience.
The finale proper, “Do You Hear The People Sing?” gives Titanic a run for its money, showing all of the fallen, back on the barricade, waving flags and singing about never being conquered. I would have liked to have seen a proper Titanic ending, with all the minor characters who we only ever saw the once included. Plus, you would have thought that on that Big Barricade In The Sky, Fantine might have gotten her long hair back. Still, the finale is one of the few swings (however easy) that this movie takes and actually hits, so good for it.
Maybe this is one of those movie musical cases where, if I hadn’t seen the stage version, I might have actually liked the film. It’s possible. People I’ve spoken to who like this film almost always say that it was their very first exposure to Les Miserables. Then they usually go on to say that they have since seen a stage production, and realise that the film left much to be desired.
Les Miserables is a wonderful, epic (yes, I have used that word a lot, but it’s really true) piece of theatre, and I recommend it to everyone, truly. Just…maybe go find one of the anniversary concert versions to watch, and spare yourself this one. I won’t assume that anyone reading this is a vampire with a soul, but I’ll close with Spike’s opinion to Angel: “trust me, halfway through the first act, you’ll be drinking humans again.”