Last time, I discussed the new film version of Les Misérables and its context in the history of the novel, the musical, and the proliferation of other adaptations. This time, I’ll set aside those other works for the most part and focus on the movie as an independent work. Is it good?
Yes. Of course it is.
Casting musicals is especially tricky because it requires balancing singing ability with acting ability and appearance. Oftentimes movie versions gravitate to name recognition over ability, even casting non-singers in lead parts. The results are, well, Chicago. Les Mis‘ star-studded cast had me concerned (and early rumors that Taylor Swift would play Éponine nearly gave me a heart attack). My fears were not completely unfounded, but the voices are all sufficient to carry their parts, and of course the acting is uniformly superb. How much more can you ask?
Well, you could ask for singers who could handle all their parts, rather than almost all their parts. Anne Hathaway is the only lead who is consistently up to par; her rendition of “I Dreamed a Dream” is gorgeous. Hugh Jackman, whose roots are in Broadway, does a great job…right up until the final note of “Bring Him Home.” Russell Crowe is out of his league with Javert, although he delivers an admirable version of “Stars.” Eddie Redmayne’s Marius is the vocal weak link. The leads do fine to great jobs, but the supporting cast of Broadway alumni (including Éponine, the Bishop of Digne, and most of the Friends of the ABC) give you a sense of how much better the whole thing could have sounded.
I’m a stickler for visuals, so I’m pleased when a movie like this makes an effort to cast actors who look the parts. Anne Hathaway is so great that I’ll overlook the fact that she should properly be blond, but we get to see a Valjean who ages reasonably, a properly angelic blond Enjolras, a callow young Marius, and a beneficent bishop. Curiously, I think Russell Crowe has the look of a Jean Valjean, not that he could sing the part.
And then there’s Sacha Baron Cohen. Yes, he and Helena Bonham Carter are the obvious choices for the Thénardiers, but in my opinion, any Sacha Baron Cohen is too much.
Much has been made of Hooper’s choice to do all live singing. One can only imagine how many takes were sacrificed to this choice and how difficult the sound design must have been, but the result is vibrant and full of emotional intensity.
Still, the direction and cinematography are generally the weak points. It’s difficult to move from a play, where everyone can be onstage at once, to a movie, where people in different locations actually have to be in different locations, but even so, Hooper’s style, constantly cutting from one close-up to the next, makes the ensemble songs feel jittery, as if the movie had too much coffee and now can’t focus on one person for more than a second. I don’t know how one should film a song as complex as “One Day More,” but this version is a visual mess where you can never see half the people who are singing. The close-ups are often too close for the big screen, too. I recommend a seat near the back.
The Friends of the ABC
Considering they dominate two-fifths of the book, the Friends of the ABC (Les Amis de l’ABC) all too often end up on the cutting room floor, which is a pity, since they could easily carry a movie by themselves*. The musical sensibly focuses on the three with the most distinct personalities: Enjolras (the resolute one), Marius (the flighty one), and Grantaire (the cynical one).
In the film, we get enough close-ups that you can begin to keep track of the others and fans of the book can amuse themselves trying to spot Combeferre (the gentle one), Courfeyrac (the snarky one), Jean Prouvaire (the poet), Feuilly (the orphan), Lesgles (the cheerfully unlucky one), Joly (the hypochondriac), and Bahorel (the prodigal). I thought for sure that I’d identified Combeferre, but I was wrong.
Their relationships are explored a little more, too. Marius’ grandfather is present, giving him some much-needed backstory, and the film even restores the implied bromance between Enjolras and Grantaire.
Yes, I know it’s a little goofy to be demanding more subtlety from a musical, and I know the Thénardiers are cartoonish in all versions, but seriously, there are limits. At some point, their clowning breaks realism and undermines the serious emotions the film is trying to evoke. The film seems generally unsure when too much is too much; for instance, one ought to be dirty after climbing out of a sewer, but Marius and Valjean look like they just got spa facials. Then again, too much is a subjective measure.
There’s room for a range of interpretations of the Thénardiers. In the book, they are rarely comical, but do range from incompetent toadies to serious threats. In the musical, they gradually become less comical from Master of the House to the robbery to the grim, creepy “Dog Eat Dog” (below), only to return to comic relief in “Beggars at the Feast.”
The film takes the most comical possible route with them, so much so that “Dog Eat Dog” is dropped entirely. I think this is a weak, lowest-common-denominator choice, but no doubt it will have a wild appeal and some people will consider them to be the highlight of the whole thing. Such is culture.
Doad and I got into a protracted discussion of the film’s interpretation of Javert. I maintain that a proper Javert is rigid to the point of being robotic, following his rules unwaveringly right up to the point where he is faced with a contradiction.
Crowe plays the role to steely-gazed perfection all the way up to the last act, where we actually see Javert undergo a slight change of heart. He has a moment of apparent empathy for the dead revolutionaries where he pins his medal onto Gavroche’s body. When he allows Valjean to leave, it feels like a moment of weakness, and his subsequent suicide feels spurred by an inability to live with himself afterward.
I hope you will enjoy Les Misérables as much as I did. Its message is as relevant today as it was 150 years ago, for today, we still try to divide the poor into the “deserving” and the “undeserving,” and to extend charity to the former and deny it to the latter. But, as the Friends of the ABC remind us, allowing the poor to live in dignity isn’t charity. It’s justice. And, as the Bishop reminds us, true charity draws no distinction between deserving and undeserving, but is extended freely to everyone.
*My fifteen-year-old self may not have had quite as much enthusiasm for this book if the latter half hadn’t been dominated by passionate young men. I retain a love of cravats to this day.