First, let me just tell you that I LOVE Les Miserables. LOVE IT! I read the book years ago, but it’s probably time for a re-read. I’ve seen the Broadway play seven times. (I think… that number might be higher— remember, I used to drink— a lot!) I’ve seen some stellar performances and some that, well, were not even close to adequate. So, while I am not a trained musical theater critic, I feel that I have some expertise where this show is concerned.
Let me just say at the outset that the movie was excellent and I think that for anyone who doesn’t have an intimate relationship with the show, as I do, it will not disappoint. I was not so much disappointed by the way the story translated to film as I was by some of the performances and the sound quality. My daughter suggests that I see it again in a theater equipped with something that has three letters, something that has “surround sound” quality, I cannot remember what it is— she says that in our movie theater that equipment exists in Theater #3. Perhaps I will have to do that. Because I was sorely disappointed in the sound quality. The musical numbers that soar on the stage (“One Day More”, for example) fell flat in the theater.
Now, to the performances. Listen, I get that “big” names “sell” a movie. I understand that Hugh Jackman has won any number of Tony Awards for his Broadway performances. I never saw “The Boy From Oz”, but I understand that he blew the doors off of that thing. But there is a huge difference between playing Peter Allen, who was, by and large, a cabaret singer, and pulling off one of the greatest roles ever written for musical theater: Jean Valjean. Part of the flaw in his performance was that he was sorely straining to hit the high notes. And these are the notes that literally bring the house down during a live performance of the show. Seriously. In addition, and I’m not sure whose choice this was, Jackman’s or the director’s (Tom Hooper), but I was disturbed by some of the phrasing, as well. In particular, when he is singing “Bring Him Home”, when he is asking God to save Marius, Valjean says, “He is only a boy.”, which is one of the most moving lines you will ever hear uttered on a stage. Ever. Jackman (or Hooper) chose to whisper it. It was all wrong. Valjean is pleading with God to save Marius. The importance of this line cannot be exaggerated. It’s heartbreaking. It’s huge. He whispered it. It got lost. Unforgivable.
The other distracting bit about Jackman’s performance I do have to blame on the director, as it’s his job, ultimately, to notice these things. As Valjean ages, his hair turns grey. There were later scenes where he is not as grey as in some of the earlier scenes. Are we supposed to believe that Jean Valjean was using Grecian Formula in 1832? Nitpicky? Perhaps. But, like I said, distracting. Something as simple as a lack of continuity in a big-budget film annoys me.
Russell Crowe as Javert? Not even close, ladies and gentlemen. Not even close. This role requires a big, booming baritone, which Mr. Crowe, for all of the things that he is — telephone ripper-outer extraordinaire comes to mind — he is not in possession of the required lower register. If he would have actually acted the part, which Hugh Jackman, vocal problems and phrasing notwithstanding, certainly did, I might be inclined to give him points for trying. He didn’t. His face never changed. I think he expected that the lyrics would speak for themselves. That works on a stage, not in a movie. Not in close-ups. He was a bit of a mess.
Samantha Barks gave a serviceable performance as Eponine. Nothing about her performance chafed, but neither did it soar. A talented musical theater professional can do great things with “On My Own” and “A Little Fall of Rain”. She did not do great things with either song, which is a shame because she can sing and act. There was something missing. I can’t put my finger on it exactly. Maybe it was the chemistry between her and Eddie Redmayne. I don’t know.
Speaking of Eddie Redmayne. Holy Guacamole! His was the standout male performance of the movie. I have never seen a better Marius. Never. Frankly, Marius is usually a little wishy-washy. He’s an important character, in that he is integral to the Valjean/Cosette plotline, the Eponine plotline, and the student revolt plotline, but usually I don’t pay much attention to him until he sings “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables”, which is one of my favorite songs in the show. It’s very short, though, and not difficult to sing. It’s designed to pull a heartstring or two, and whoever plays Marius usually manages to do just that while delivering it. (Joe Jonas being the exception— Good Lord, don’t even get me started on him!) I think part of the beauty of this film adaptation was in its ability to let the audience get to know Marius, which was done without adding much of anything. It was accomplished through camera work, not through the addition of dialogue. It was a pleasant surprise.
Eddie Redmayne’s female counterpart, in terms of best all-around female performance has to go to Anne Hathaway as Fantine. It would be very easy to overact while playing Fantine. Very easy. She did not. Her portrayal of Fantine was pitch-perfect, as was her voice. Phenomenal. I have never been so moved by “I Dreamed a Dream” in my life. Never. Breathtaking. Heartbreaking. Difficult to watch, even. She was, in a word, fantastic.
As an aside, I saw Daphne Rubin-Vega play Fantine once. The audience actually applauded when she died. Applauded. It was, far and away, one of the worst performances I have ever seen anyone deliver on a Broadway stage. Not only did she not have the vocal chops for the role, but she decided to imbue her already horrid performance with a Brooklyn accent. (Her own, maybe? I don’t know.) Worse is that nobody stopped her. It was just awful.
Amanda Seyfried was a pleasant surprise as the adult Cosette. This is another role that, while important in linking Valjean and Marius, makes me go, “Meh”. I’ll admit I thought that Seyfried might be a train wreck. I was wrong. Often I find Cosette’s soprano to be grating, but Seyfried pulled it off and in doing so showed the audience her vulnerability and her loneliness. She was very good.
No one who has ever seen the show doesn’t have a soft spot for Gavroche, the little urchin boy. Daniel Huttlestone plays him in the film. Gavroche is always a scene stealer. Huttlestone did not disappoint. He captured the combination of street smarts and innocence that makes this character so beloved just perfectly.
The Thernardier’s are the comic relief in what could otherwise be a dour enterprise. (It’s not called Les Miserables for nothing!) Hooper cast Sasha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter to play the innkeeper and his wife. I can’t really think of anyone else who would have played them better. Jack Black might have made a decent Thernardier, but Sasha Baron Cohen was very good. The costuming was as over-the-top as it should have been. Overall, they were fine. Their performances were probably better in “Sweeney Todd”, but they had more to work with in that movie adaptation. The Thernardier’s are, for all intents and purposes, caricatures.
One of my favorite things about the movie occurred very early on. Colm Wilkinson, who was the original Jean Valjean, was given the role of the priest who saves Valjean from being sent back to the gallows. He tasks him with giving his life to God. The priest only has eight or ten lines, but nobody else could have squeezed the emotion out of them like Wilkinson does. He turned in a beautiful performance that, frankly, made me all the more wistful for his Valjean. I am, in fact, right now listening to his rendition of “Bring Him Home”. Oh. My. God. If you want to be moved, truly moved, listen to this (pay careful attention to the “He’s only a boy line” while you’re at it!):
Here’s another version that should blow you away, as well (it’s Alfie Boe’s version):
Overall, I would recommend spending the $12 and 2-1/2 hours that the movie will set you back. It’s certainly far more worthwhile viewing than, say, “The Guilt Trip” or other such nonsense. Also, it’s okay to be a Hugh Jackman or a Russell Crowe fan, folks. It’s fine if you don’t share my opinion. For those of you with little or no access to live theater, use the movie version (but do ask about that surround sound thingy — I think it will make a difference) as a primer and then go on YouTube or some such to view these and other fine performances from this fabulous show! That’s all I’m saying.