Audiences are going to be divided, but we need to qualify that statement. The division will come not so much in the usual way of a cinema audience deciding whether the film is good or not – it’s actually great in the way you would hope a Hollywood production of a hit Broadway musical can be great – but to the degree to which you can enjoy it. The division will come from audience members who have seen and adored the beloved stage production and those who have not.
For those who come to Les Misérables new without having seen a moment of the theatrical production and whose knowledge of the music stretches no further than Susan Boyle’s rendition of I Dream A Dream, then the production will appear spectacular, ambitious in its storytelling, and – depending on how far you allow yourself to embrace the overall production – emotionally overwhelming. For those who have seen the stage musical, in some cases many times, and to those who follow the national touring productions around the country as if on a musical sojourn, then the film is going to be judged in a completely different manner.
The first problem that always needs to be addressed when watching a film adaptation of a beloved show is whether it can live up to an audience’s impression of what form that adaptation should be. Director Tom Hooper has chosen an up-front and in-your-face manner of showing the characters and their situations. By shunning a widescreen look and shooting his film in a standard-sized frame, the feel of seeing something visually epic is diminished, but it also gives Hooper the opportunity to move in closer to the characters. Despite the many impressive set pieces of Parisian streets and sewers, not to mention the magnificent opening moment where prisoners are desperately pulling a sailing ship into dry dock during a frigid storm, filming most of this production in close-up makes Les Misérables look as though it was shot more for television than the big screen.
The casting has gone to cinema marquee-value names, which in some casting choices was not quite so necessary considering that the real star of the show is the show itself. Hugh Jackman, himself a Broadway and West-End talent, sings and acts well as Jean Valjean, perfectly capturing the spirit of a tortured soul who stole a loaf of bread and spent the rest of his life chased by the law. His adversary is Inspector Javert, here played by Russell Crowe, who both looks and acts the part magnificently, but I fear there may be some who need time to adjust to the sound of his singing voice. Javert is traditionally played by someone with the most majestic of baritone voices. Crowe doesn’t have one, but he overcomes his vocal limitations by performing Javert with absolute sincerity. In Crowe’s case, style wins over substance.
Because of director Hooper’s insistence that all actors sing their parts live, the sound of the song comes in second to the way the song is performed. On stage, the voice is of paramount importance. On film, the feeling is a lot more intimate. The songs are not so much sung, they’re acted and in character. Anne Hathaway’s rendition of I Dream a Dream is no emotionally empowering Patti Lapone performance, it’s Fantine’s quiet and tearful remembrance of an unfulfilled existence. It won’t inspire in the way that Lapone, Elaine Paige or even Susan Boyle might, but at the same time none of those voices can achieve what Hathaway does with her more personal rendition. In this film version, Hathaway will break your heart.
The one miscalculation in casting and song presentation – and it’s a big miscalculation – is Master of the House performed by that loathsome couple, the Thenardiers, here played by Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter. Those who know the show know that the song is one moment of light relief, a hearty, bar room sing-a-long with very funny he said/she said lyrics and a great chorus. Cohen never gives the song the comic delivery required – it’s all in the editing, not the performance – and Bonham Carter’s voice for a character that is traditionally portrayed as robust with a full-bodied, vulgar thrust with every witty line is here weedy thin. Where her theatrical counterpoint is reluctantly amused by her mistakes in life and shows it through belly laughs, Bonham Carter expresses a quiet, sad, and reflexive poignancy. In a film that, for the most part, is quite remarkable and shows that the musical on the big screen is far from dead, Master of the House doesn’t work, and the film temporarily suffers because of it.
MPAA Rating: PG-13 Length: 158 minutes Overall Rating: 8 (out of 10)