I just saw one of the best films of the year. Let me tell you about it, and forgive me if I change tenses for my sleep has been deprived by this musical recently.
Warning: This review contains spoilers! Go see the movie so we can all have a good time in this review, okay?
Disclaimer: This is a personal review for entertainment purposes. I am not being paid to write this. Discussions are encouraged.
When I first saw trailers for this new adaptation of Les Misérables, several things crossed my mind.
1. “Castle On A Cloud? Castle On A Cloud is in a commercial! ZOMG ZOMG ZOMG ZOMG.” You see, all the movie commercials I saw on television and the internet (not counting the trailer for theaters) began with the main theme of that one song. It’s the calling card for us Les Miser-ites.
2. “Anne Hathaway can sing?” Yes. Yes, she can.
3. “Who on earth could play Thenardier?” Would you believe Steve Buscemi was my answer to myself?
4. “Hugh Jackman? Not that guy again.”
Dear Mr. Jackman, I humbly apologize for doubting you. For a good part of the film, you are unrecognizable to me. And, boy, you have some fine pipes! I take back all the sneering I did during your Wolverine fame. (My Wolverine wears yellow spandex and grunts when he breathes, thank you.) I take back my lack of awe at your singing in Happy Feet. During What Have I Done?, you fly out of the screen and touch the men and women whose hearts are God’s.
Ever since I first heard of Les Mis from the original London cast’s 10th anniversary special (better known as The Dream Cast in Concert), and ever since I first heard the original cast recording, I’ve been spoiled by Colm Wilkinson (Valjean) and Roger Allam (Javert). After spending a whole week reliving these casts and then watching the new film yesterday, I must say Jackman is my new Valjean. My One True Valjean. (OTV, if you please.) Terribly sorry, Wilkinson, old buddy, for causing you shame among my own imaginary dream cast, but I’m sure you’re in everyone else’s.
As for Ms. Hathaway, let me be clear. Before this film, the character Fantine was nothing more than a good singer in a bad wig. (Thank you, The Dream Cast in Concert.) I had never seen the tragedy surrounding her character but could tell what was happening to her based on the lyrics and lull of her songs. Hathaway tears apart my conceptions about the role and, like Jackman, gives the character the uncanny dimension, causing her to look as though she’s coming out of the screen without any need for 3D effects. If I started crying during the bloody theatrical trailer from Fantine’s sorrow, Madame, your job is more than well done.
As with Hathaway, I had no idea Amanda Seyfried could sing nor who Samantha Barks was. Today, I know: yes she can, and that’s my girl! Being the type of person who only begrudgingly likes the hero and main romantic couple of any story, I can honestly say Seyfried and Eddie Redmayne (Marius) were impressive, Redmayne especially. Seyfried was quite a surprise, and as she sang I could hardly believe this was the same person who played the dumb blond in Mean Girls. Eponine has always been one of my favorite characters, and proof that my favorite always dies. Darling Barks has made herself a movie star.
The chorus isn’t as massive as what I’m used to hearing, and this impression may have been due to where I was sitting in the theater (the house’s back left corner) but they didn’t blend as well either. From this film’s start, we see it is a gritty experience; the emotions to come arrive in literal waves while Valjean is finishing his sentence. Because of this, the poor townspeople don’t need to be portrayed by a 100+ person choir. We can hear each individual, suffering voice.
And the Thenardiers? I wanted to be surprised as to who was playing them, for, as this is still Hollywood, they had to be graced by people who were already famous for movies. When I first spotted Helena Bonham Carter, it didn’t register that this was a role and not the person herself. The unkempt hair, though blonde, seems no more different from how I usually find her on talk shows, and the conniving personality of Madame Thendarier is similar to other characters I have seen her portray in other films.
Monsieur Thenardier was also familiar, but I couldn’t figure him out until the credits. I’m so used to Sacha Baron Cohen’s over the top performances that he isn’t recognizeable here. Thenardier and his wife are quite subtle compared to what I’m used to hearing. (See below.)
Although I have unfortunately never seen the musical on stage nor read the novel by Victor Hugo, I know the story well and have known it for years. It is long and filled with much material for graduate thesis (theses?), and so I won’t bore you with the three-paragraph synopsis I deleted from this post. If you haven’t seen it, see it. It’s one of those films that I’m sure shows you a new layer of complexity with every viewing.
Just yesterday, I was hit with the repeating musical themes. I knew before they were recycled (think Lovely Ladies and Turning) but after being able to sit down for two and a half hours to take it all in, this is much more impressive and agonizing. Take Come To Me. This recycles in On My Own. It’s not a reprise, for they’re sung on different subjects. The death of Fantine gives the theme more tragic undertones than it would have without the help of this repetition. It may foreshadow Eponine’s death (there’s a thesis option for you) and, while she’s living, revives a sorrow in the viewer that might not be fully realized without the theme. Eponine also repeats Fantine’s I Dreamed A Dream within One Day More. Javert repeats the theme from What Have I Done? in his soliloquy before his death. Composer Claude-Michel Schönberg continues to be celebrated for obvious reasons.
While no film is ever identical to its stage counterpart, I don’t mind that a few occurrences are rearranged. According to the original London cast recording, I Dreamed A Dream takes place before Fantine sells herself. I only realize now that this is different from the musical. Looking through some notes on the musical, minor plot points are indeed placed in different parts in the film, likely because the camera has the freedom to cut away to another scene quickly without having to cram all of the plot on one stage. The play, also, is probably much different from the novel.
As much as I had the desire to read the original Les Misérables (in English) before, that desire is strengthened now. I might discover subtleties in the novel that were revived in the new film, such as specific objects, a greater description of the atmosphere, or a larger look inside the characters. In watching this, I can appreciate the book much better–and vice versa.
My one and only disappointment is Russell Crowe. I’m sure he’s lovely in the other films he’s starred in (because, yes, A Beautiful Mind was quite good), but was there no one else to play Javert? Was there no one else?! (coughJonathancoughFreeman) Why, director Tom Hooper, why? If ‘Ponine is my favorite, Javert is my absolute favorite, and from this performance I feel a level of betrayal that only a fangirl can muster. I know I’m not alone in this.
Every single song in this musical is inspiring, but Crowe cannot be counted among the other stars. He’s missing the dynamics I’m used to hearing from Javert, and he just sounds tired throughout the film. He seems to be holding back. Even his physical features fall flat; the chorus in the background of every scene is more interesting than what is going on in Crowe’s Javert’s mind. To me, the character Javert always seemed to be more of a drill sergeant. (Perhaps this is different in the novel. I will find out someday.) I believe one could have put an actual drill sargeant with no singing talent on screen and he would have been better than what I saw in Crowe.
(Below, you can find the magnificent Roger Allam at 2:18.)
The only times Crowe jumps off the screen equal to the other actors are the following times: during the sword fight after Fantine’s death, when he is taken to a personal galley by Valjean and set free, and the moment Valjean passes him while carrying the unconscious Marius. Note that these times are both short and happening just after a crucial and moving moment. Before Javert is led away by Valjean, I was captivated by his suffering under the rebels, but to my credit I’m a sucker for that sort of drama. Is Crowe lettting his character piggyback on these moments or has the film been rearranged in such a way that it only seems this way? Perhaps, when singing, he wasn’t shown in such grotesque angles as Valjean and Fantine are. (I’ll have to see if this is true the next time I go to the theaters.) Maybe the director wanted to show him as a more rigid, unchanging man, but if this is the case then I disagree about its effectiveness; it didn’t work out well for Crowe.
For future reference, this is what a singer looks like (Philip Quast):
If you like history, see this movie. It is so much different from others that take place around this time that I, a costume junky, barely noticed what everyone was wearing. Most period movies I see require one to take in the magnificence of the visual designs—but not this one. The visuals are in the emotions that reach out to you through the screen. The visuals are the faces of the characters jumping towards you, and the history is in their suffering. I learned about what might have happened at the June Rebellion, and it revived my curiosity about French history.
If you like musicals, see this movie. Please note there are no song and dance numbers (unless Master of the House counts). I guarantee, though, that you will have a jolly good time. You will laugh, but you will cry much more, and then you will later laugh at how much you wanted to cry even still. You will also spend at least the next few days re-singing it to yourself until your voice goes hoarse.
If you like anyone who is well-known in Hollywood, see this movie. They will blow you away. There is already much Oscar talk, for Jackman and Hathaway especially, and so, if you want to take in the full effects of the film, see it now!
I wish to write more about this film, but I will save it for another day when I have researched it more.