I will admit this up front: Les Miserables is probably my favorite musical of all time. I’ve seen it performed several times (the best Jean Valjean I’ve ever heard sing the role continues to be Craig Shulman), and I know the libretto practically by heart. So it was with these strong feelings about Les Miz that I saw Tom Hooper’s new film adaptation of Claude-Michel Schonberg and Alain Boubil’s brilliant telling of the Victor Hugo novel.
One way to judge any performance of Les Miz is by the number of tissues required. Tears are a byproduct of involvement, emotion, being right there with the actors as the story unfolds. And by the end of Les Miz, my every last tissue was sodden, my makeup was a mess, and I couldn’t quite muster words until we made it all the way to the lobby.
Les Miserables tells the story of Jean Valjean, an impoverished young man who had stolen a loaf of bread to help feed his dying sister. Caught by the police, Valjean served 19 years before parole, a virtual second imprisonment that means a life of enforced poverty with no chance of redemption, and a very good chance of going back to prison (or death by starvation).
Upon his release from prison, and after being refused work and even a place to rest without showing his papers (which mark him as an ex-convict, and mean instant refusal), he is finally given sanctuary at a church where he repays the kindness of his host by stealing some of his valuable silver. Caught with the silver, Valjean is yet again shown kindness by the priest, who insists he gave the silver to his guest, and in fact gives him yet more. Now free, Valjean understands the burden under which this single act of compassion places him to become a better man.
Valjean lives under the accusing, watchful eye of Inspector Javert (Russell Crowe), whose sole mission in life is to keep a short leash on this “dangerous criminal” for whom, according to the law, redemption is not possible.
Valjean breaks his parole and runs away to start a new life, using the silver to break free of the mold into which he has been cast. He becomes a wealthy and respected factory owner, and mayor of his town.
But fate intervenes and Javert recognizes his prey; and the policeman pursues Valjean for the many years to come, even as Valjean becomes the protector of the young Cosette (Anna Seyfried as the older Cosette) when his factory worker Fantine (Anne Hathaway) dies after being fired and left to scrounge in the streets. All their lives play out against the backdrop of 1830s France during a failed working class revolt led by a group of students, including Marius (Eddie Redmayne), who falls in love with Cosette.
The Thenardiers (Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen), with whom Cosette lived as a little girl, weave in and out of the revolt and Valjean’s life, causing him trouble and creating havoc for every other life they touch (the comic relief of this heavy, tragic tale).
Hooper’s adaptation of this modern opera is a brave and largely successful undertaking, if at times a bit broad and overstated. The actors in the film sing their musically challenging roles in this live (no dubbing or re-recording involved as often happens in movie adaptation of musicals). Although the singing is flawed, and few of the leads possess the vocal power or range of their Broadway counterparts, the raw emotion each actor brings to every song comes through beautifully.
On stage, the voices are of prime importance. Most people can’t see the expressions on the actors’ faces; they can’t pick up the emotion of the story or the characters any other way except through the power of the vocal performances. And there is no spoken dialogue in Les Miz; it’s all either song or recitative. It’s essentially an opera. All the impact of each performance must be delivered through the filter of song; it’s an incredibly difficult challenge for the actors.
On film, we have the benefit of close ups, of the camera panning in so we can see the eyes, the facial expressions of the performers. We can watch them struggle through the tears and emotion as they perform their musical selections, not dubbed in later when they are no longer “in the moment.” The impact of those performances more than makes up for any vocal issues. Watching Hugh Jackman overcome and in tears as he can barely choke out words out in “Bring Him Home,” or Eddie Redmayne’s face in “Empty Chairs and Empty Tables,” or Anne Hathaway singing “I Dreamed a Dream” is a powerful payoff for the actors taking the risk of performing those difficult songs real time, not perfectly, but with genuine emotion.
Jackman, not a stranger to musical theater brings a wonderful weariness and melancholy to his Jean Valjean, and Russell Crowe’s Javert, especially towards the final scenes is excellent, letting us into Javert’s growing internal conflict. Seyfried brings a porcelain fragility to Cosette, and Redmayne a shy vulnerability to Marius. All of the acting is excellent, as are the singing voices of the supporting players, especially Aaron Tvet as Enjolras, Samantha Barks as Eponine, and Daniel Huttlestone as the street urchin Gavroche.
The film isn’t without its problems, however. Crowe, especially, struggles with the challenges of singing Javert. Crowe can sing, and I usually like his singing voice when he’s in a comfortable range; here he is not. Jackman also sometimes strains visibly on some of Valjean’s higher notes, although he fares better than Crowe. I thought as well that Baron-Cohen and Bonham-Carter were too over the top, even for the chronically over-the-top Thenardiers. For me, their performances were overwrought and out of place.
I realize that I will probably go to sleep tonight listening to the original Broadway or London cast recordings of Les Miz and make the inevitable comparisons. But that’s okay. I remember listening to the original cast recording of Les Miserables after seeing the Chicago production in 1990 and remarking how much more powerful was Craig Shulman’s (Chicago) Valjean than Colm Wilkinson’s (on Broadway). It’s the nature of the beast. But Hooper’s film adaptation is unforgettable in its own right. I can’t wait to see it again.