A Review: Les Misérables

Yo, it’s been a while!! So I just saw the much-anticipated film version of Les Misérables, and felt compelled to write a review. It might’ve turned out as more half-review, half-tirade, but if you feel like taking the time here it is:

Les Miserables 2012

 I’ll admit it now, I am completely Les Mis-sessed. Ever since I first saw the show on Broadway with my mother at some inappropriately young age (I would hazard around second grade), a time when this epic tale of death, suffering and revolution was entirely beyond my understanding, the music spoke to me in a way no other score ever has. I would listen to the soundtrack in our living room, each song conjuring the boldest of images in my mind, filling me with emotions I, at such a tender age, could not yet name. I grew up belting ‘On My Own’ in the shower, softly crooning ‘Stars’ to myself on long walks in the dark. I’ve seen the show twice on Broadway, been involved in two productions, and watched more community productions and repeat viewings of both Anniversary Editions than I can count. And even after all this time, melodramatic as it sounds, whenever those melodies pass over my lips the emotions well up as moving and powerful as ever.

So bearing this in mind, I hope I can convey to you the significance of the place Les Miserables holds in my heart, and therefore how high the bar was set upon entering the theater to view Tom Hooper’s attempt at capturing and transcribing one of history’s greatest musicals into the language of cinema. I’ll say this for the cinematography; it is absolutely gorgeous, and the opening shots of Jean Valjean toiling in the prison and his trek over icy mountain paths are appropriately larger-than-life. Whenever I hear those first few opening chords chills run up and down my spine, and having them accompanied by the sight of a stormy sea and a ship being pulled into harbor by a contingent of chained, defeated-looking prisoners made for a exceptionally promising beginning. Unfortunately, that swell in my chest conjured by these preliminary images quickly subsided when the prisoners opened their mouths. There wasn’t the same feeling I always get when viewing the production on stage, that sense of intense suffering, anger, hopelessness. And perhaps I’m too much of a purist, but the omission of certain beloved lines (“How long, Oh Lord, before you let me die?”) was both upsetting and jarring.

Which leads us into my first main gripe with the film; unneccessary line omissions, changes, and additions. Obviously songs and lines were going to be cut, the original unabridged Les Mis is, after all, a three-hour show. But the presence of certain added lines seemed entirely arbitrary. For instance, when Valjean is first released, the exchange generally occurs as such:

Javert: No. It means you get your yellow ticket of leave, you are a thief.

Valjean: I stole a loaf of bread.

Javert: You robbed a house.

Valjean: I broke a window pane.”

But this version has the correspondence as follows:

Javert: Follow to the letter your itinerary. This badge of shame will show until you die. It warns you’re a dangerous man.

Valjean: I stole a loaf of bread.”

What exactly is the purpose of this? It isn’t necessary to explaining the defeatist system of parole, as this is displayed to the audience via a following montage. And worse, I think it does a disservice to the character of Javert. The Inspector follows Valjean for all those years not because he believes he is an incredibly dangerous man; Javert doesn’t see him as a physical threat, but as a threat to his extreme faith in the law. He is determined to see Valjean imprisoned because those who commit a crime must be accordingly punished, and that is all. So to throw in terms like ‘You’re a dangerous man’ adds little plot wise, plays with established character identities and serves to pull those familiar with the show out of the story.

While these random lines changes and pointless additions ran rampant throughout the film, they were annoying but not enough to earn the movie a condemnation. My next complaint has to do with the casting. Upon hearing Anne Hathaway had been casted as Fantine I was extremely skeptical, but her harrowing and emotional performance proved me wrong. In a movie attempting to cobble together performances by established film and Broadway actors, she was the only one able to marry these two different worlds in perfect unison, and the result was beautiful. Blessed with a fully capable voice, she knew exactly how to carry her ballads over from the stage to the camera, and precisely when it was acceptable to sacrifice sound for realism, something that evaded many of the other actors. I was also pleasantly surprised by Eddie Redmayne, who has a wonderful voice and was able to kindle an affection for an often bland and forgettable character. And those hazel puppy-dog eyes certainly didn’t hurt.

Most disappointing for me were Amanda Seyfried as Cosette, Russell Crowe as Javert, and, yes, Hugh Jackman as Jean Valjean. I actually think Seyfried’s portrayal of Cosette, one of the musical’s most universally despised characters, was rather impressive. She has a subtle grace and elegance, making it almost believable that an impetuous young man might merely set eyes on her and fall-head -over-heels. I also feel she was able to imbue Cosette with a little more strength and spirit than she’s usually given, through her exchanges with her father and furtive attempts to discover the truth. What I can’t get past is the exceedingly poor quality of her voice. Whispery and reed-thin, she might be able to hit those high B-flats but she can’t sustain them. Her notes wheeze and cut out long before they should, lacking breath and power, and since the paper-thin character of Cosette exists mostly to serve as a lovely voice the possession of an actual adequate singing voice is a must.

Russell Crowe was absolutely terrible, sleep-walking through one of the most iconic (and my personal favorite) musical roles of all time. He brought none of the harshness and certainty associated with the role of Javert, and although he has a surpisingly good voice he has no idea how to act with it.

Lastly, Hugh Jackman. I was incredibly excited for Hugh Jackman to take on the role of Valjean, but was sorely disappointed by his voice. While good, it doesn’t contain nearly enough power to pull off the role of Valjean. And the way he floated through the entire movie with the same solicitous, guilty expression was incredibly frustrating. He portrayed a remorseful, martyrly and paranoid Valjean but forgot Valjean was also a character of enormous strength, faith, and assuredness.

As for the more minor characters, I knew I would dislike Helena Bonham Carter’s as Madame Thernadier (given her portrayal of Mrs. Lovett) before entering the theater, and her sleepy and underwhelming performance of the musical’s most ridiculous and overly-extravagant character proved me correct. Sacha Baron Cohen was a bit of an improvement, but he missed out on both some great comedic opportunities and truly dark moments. Samantha Barks and Aaron Tveit, both heralding from Broadway, were the only ones who seemed truly sure of what they were doing, and their powerful and pitch-perfect voices were a welcome relief.

My last issue with Hooper’s Les Mis was the staging of the battle at the barricade. Everything seemed off; it lacked an intensity and epic quality usually present. The battle felt smaller, less urgent and eventful. And to have the students meet their end cowering in the upper floor of the tavern was the greatest offense. The students knew they were giving up their lives, Enjolras tells them their situation is hopeless and gives them the chance to abandon the fight. They’re supposed to die fighting proudly for what they believe, and they die on the barricade.

They didn’t appear passionate students dedicated to a cause, they came off as brash, silly little boys playing at rebellion. And while this might be a more realistic take, it’s not the sentiment I believe the audience is meant to walk away with, and judging by the movie’s finale where the city rises up and the students victoriously wave a red flag over the barricade, it’s not how Hooper meant for us to feel either.

I will say, it was a nice movie, and a very pretty movie. But it lacked the gripping quality and raw emotion of the stage version. Perhaps it’s no one’s fault, and Les Mis is merely a masterpiece left best to the stage. I’ll give it this; it was a very brave and serious attempt at capturing what is Les Miserables and delivering it to the cinematic world, albeit a flawed one. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to go look up the closest showing of the onstage Les Miserables as soon as humanly possible. 

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5 thoughts on “A Review: Les Misérables

  1. “judging by the movie’s finale where the city rises up and the students victoriously wave a red flag over the barricade” – I’m not sure that’s what’s happening in that scene. Valjean has died at that point and it’s then set in a world “beyond the barricade” in the afterlife, which is why the dead characters get to come back for the epic finale.

    You’re right about that line change though, it really throws you off and is totally pointless.

    • Sorry, maybe I should’ve been clearer. Obviously the characters are deceased and their revolution quelled, I just meant that since Hooper ends with the uplifting image of a world where the students’ were victorious, he means for us to see them as heroes and martyrs, not silly rich boys who should’ve kept to themselves. My point is the rest of the movie often makes them come off as the latter.

  2. 1. I wholeheatedly agree with your view about how Hugh Jackman played Javert.. he was awful and he can’t sing. He was horrible in the 1999 version of Oklahoma too, I perferred Helana as MME Therraliander then Mrs Lovett I like humorous characters and MMe Therarliander is a comic relief type of character.
    2. If you’re interested the New London Barn Playhouse and Interlakes Summer Theatre are both putting on Les Miserables this summer. 🙂 Dates IST July 16- 28 NLBP August 7-18

    Both of these theatres do amazing performances & you will be impressed if you choose to go to either show. 🙂 New London is about 45 min north of Concrod and Interlakes Summer Theatre is in Meredith.

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