For you non-"Mis" folk, "Les Miserables" is the story of Prisoner 24601 Jean Valjean, who breaks parole, is hunted relentlessly by Inspector Javert and encounters various troubled and impoverished characters in post-revolutionary France.
Based on the 1862 novel by Victor Hugo, it is beloved by generations of musical theatre fans. The musical version of the movie was a risky undertaking, but now promises a huge pay-off to the studio, cast, and crew, thanks largely to a career topping job by several of the lead actors. The endless marketing about the actors singing live has also piqued many filmgoers' interests.
Character Fantine sings, "I dreamed a dream of life gone by...". I dream, too, of when no one made such a big deal about people acting and singing live in one take. The overworked and underpaid folks on Broadway and London's West End do it every night and have been doing it for decades.
All the press about the fact that the whole film is shot with live singing is warranted in that it is surprisingly uncommon—especially with actors who can actually sing. Peter Bogdanovitch's 1975 flop "At Long Last Love" included live recordings of stars Burt Reynolds and Bogdanovitch muse Cybill Shepherd, both of whom, to put it nicely, were "vocally challenged."
The results in this case are a mix of astounding and breathtaking—and disappointing. Director Hooper obviously got great performances by the actors, but also seemed to inexplicably limit the film visually, when it could have had not just intermittent but universally gorgeous production design.
To say that Hugh Jackman is up to the task of playing Jean Valjean is a vast understatement. I am a bit of a Les Mis geek, just as many who will attend the film version on Christmas day are likely to be. I saw the mind blowing Colm Wilkinson, starring in the first and original cast and what many consider to be the definitive Valjean on the London stage many years ago.
Between Wilkinson, Alfie Boe and John Owen Jones, (Valjeans the best of which is argued over by the Les Mis obsessed ad infinitum), Jackman had some enormously talented shoes to fill. It is a bit like trying to play Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz better than Judy Garland. Kudos to him for bringing his very best acting and vocal work, in equal measure, to the film. He stands up against the best of the Valjeans, particularly in "What Have I Done", which is wracked of emotion, dragging you into the film so completely you can almost feel his spit on you. One does have to get used to his occasionally molasses slow vibrato. His passionate delivery makes up for it if it is not to your taste.
Too bad Daniel Day Lewis as Lincoln is going to ruin it for any other best acting Oscar contenders.
Even more surprising and impressive is the portrayal of Fantine by Anne Hathaway. So floored was I by her characterization and singing in the extended take of "I Dreamed a Dream," I will be shocked if she doesn't win the best supporting actress Oscar this year. Even seen through the eyes of a trained and highly critical singer, she was a revelation. I would pay the ticket price again just to see Hathaway. Anne, honey, it's all down hill from here…
Another standout is Samantha Barks, who beat out scores of Hollywood A-listers to play Eponine in the film after playing her in London for a year in 2010. She brings the right mix of frailty and cynicism to an unfortunately truncated role.
Eddie Redmayne sings and emotes beautifully as Marius (the love interest for Valjean's adoptive daughter, Cosette, played by Amanda Seyfried in a soprano, which for better or worse, is reminiscent of Adriana Caselotti, Disney's Snow White). Redmayne has a great presence and carries a perfect balance of strength in both his singing and acting, easily holding his own against far better known Hollywood personalities.
It is a special delight seeing and hearing the original Valjean Colm Wilkinson showing he still "has it" as the pivotal role of Bishop.
Not so great, however, is Russell Crowe. Sad to say, he is out of his depth vocally. Obsessed inspector Javert requires a booming and highly skilled singing voice to bring intensity to a character who is otherwise constrained by discipline and structure. Norm Lewis is most famous for his portrayal onstage, and challenges other performers to bring the same level of quality to the role. Crowe's choice to play Javert as physically restrained mixed with his limitations as a singer make him seem overly subdued and essentially ineffectual. Who knew someone with usually so much screen presence could cut it into tiny pieces in the role of a lifetime? A valiant effort, but a colossal disappointment for his fans. There must be many other actors who would have made more of the opportunity.
As to the direction and visual quality of the film, they bring mixed feelings, too, given what might have been. The opening moments are stunning, prepare the audience for hours of songs with a compelling scene where ensemble singing makes sense. Valjean is dramatically introduced in a way that captivates us completely.
Then the music videos start. Because of the nature of the live singing, Hooper uses lots of close up shots of the actors while they perform. Given current technology, you would think they could record their singing even as the move about freely in a bigger space. Turning the stage play into film should be the perfect opportunity to surround the characters with more visually exciting environments. When sets are used in Les Misérables, they are so beautiful and meticulously appointed, it makes the overuse of tight shots all the more annoying to the viewer. Note to Hooper: There are many options between sweeping panoramic shots and tight close ups.
However many its flaws, producer (and British knight) Cameron Mackintosh (described in 1990 by the New York Times as "the most successful, influential and powerful producer in the world") should and will continue his winning streak with this film. Hooper too has reason to be proud, although I would have liked to see more expansion from the stage sets in the production design.
The real stars here are Hugh Jackman and Anne Hathaway. Go to see their truly inspired portrayals, as well as the new song "Suddenly" sung by Jackman, written by the same writers (Schonberg and Boublil) that created the original musical. I believe you'll be seeing at least one Oscar-winning performance.
It may a dramatic way to enjoy the holidays, but this is kind of drama you'll enjoy. Perhaps the world you long to see "somewhere beyond the barricade" is waiting for you inside the multiplex. See? I told you Cinema Siren was a musical theatre geek….