Review: Les Miserables

Well, I saw it. Les Mis. The film I had been waiting all of 2012 to see.  The film every musical theater fan flocked to on Christmas. Before I tell you what I thought of it, I must give a few disclaimers.

The movie poster for Les Mis (Copyright 2012 Universal Pictures)
The movie poster for Les Mis (Copyright 2012 Universal Pictures)

DISCLAIMERS: I love musicals. And musicals turned into movies. (My favorite movie is “West Side Story” starring Natalie Wood.) I love Les Mis. I have been in Les Mis, where I starred as factory worker No.1, field laborer, nun, homeless urchin, party guest and revolutionary. I have seen the national touring production of Les Miserables. I am a french minor, so I have read/seen numerous versions of Hugo’s original work, in both French and English. So it is safe to say that I am somewhat of an expert on the subject matter and various versions of the musical.

That being said, I did not like the film. (Pause while all of my theater friends gasp and delete my phone number.) I did not hate it either. It was just rather “meh.”

I love the story of Les Miserables and was happy to see that the story was rather unchanged from the stage version. Only minor pieces were changed (If you call the circumstances around Eponine and Gavroche’s deaths minor), which made the story very true to its past.

There are many benefits to the medium of film. The beginning of Les Mis is a brief history of the beginning of Jean Valjean‘s life after prison. This can be confusing on the stage with numerous set and costume changes, something that was avoided by the film. I feel as if in this sense the story was easier to understand for those who don’t know it.

Another benefit was seeing how disgusting the lives of the poor were. You could see the yellow teeth, the cuts and bruises, the dirt under the nails. In staged productions, make up has to be exaggerated and overdone so the audience sitting back 100 feet can see it.  I felt that the costumes and make up in the film were wonderfully done and made the audience feel sorry for “les miserables” of France in the 19th century.

(Warning: spoiler alerts from here on out.)

As for the pace of the film itself, I found myself bored frequently. The beginning half of the film moved along fantastically, thanks to Anne Hathaway, and the ending bit with the revolutionaries had a nice clip to it. The middle part wasn’t very quick and I felt my mind wander. It wasn’t the length of the film that made it seem long, but the pacing.

An emaciated Anne Hathaway as Fantine in the 2012 film version of Les Mia
An emaciated Anne Hathaway as Fantine in the 2012 film version of Les Mia

Casting was very interesting. I thought Anne Hathaway was fantastic, both in her singing and acting. However, her waif-like appearance was not that shocking to me. Pictures of Hathaway’s skeletal frame and close-cropped hair were splashed all over the media months ago, making me personally immune to the shocking physical transformation her character undergoes.

My favorite casting choice was Colm Wilkinson as the Bishop who gives Jean Valjean a second chance at life. For those of you who have a life, you probably don’t know that Wilkinson originated the role of Jean Valjean over 25 years ago. Wilkinson is a legend. He was also the original Judas Iscariot in Jesus Christ, Superstar and the original Phantom in Phantom of the Opera. I felt like having him in the movie was highly respectful and symbolic.

The revolutionary men were the highlight of the film. Eddie Redmayne as Marius and Aaron Tveit as Enjolras were fantastic. They were superb. Redmayne’s rendition of “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables” was the best I have ever seen. What powerful emotion. Bravo to them and all the other young men at the barricade. Bravo!

I thought Russel Crowe was a fantastic Javert. He may not have the best singing voice, but his presence and character were precisely what I see in Javert. Same with Hugh Jackman as Jean Valjean. I thought he was good, but not great. His acting was fantastic. He played Valjean as a normal person, not (as is so usually done) as a man who has no faults. We the audience can see what Valjean was thinking, his motivation, something that is so difficult to do on a stage. Jackman’s voice is not my favorite, but for goodness sake the man won a Tony award and will probably get an Oscar nod for this role.

Amanda Seyfried as Cosette was a pleasant surprise. I generally dislike the character of Cosette because she is usually played as a helpless girl with a near-perfect life. However, Cosette did not annoy me in the film. So again I must say Bravo! (or Brava!)

The worst casting decision was the foreman. While this may seem a strange protestation for such a small part, I can’t help it. Michael Jibson did a fine job, but he just didn’t seem right. The foreman is supposed to be a lecherous character, not a cute red-haired man. He seemed too jolly.

**The final verdict**

I believe that my overall beef with the film is that it was not the show-stopping, rabble-rousing, belt-you-heart-out performance I was expecting. The film seemed very real, as if the characters were coming with with their lines/lyrics at the same moment they were speaking them, not as if they had dreamed of singing these classic showtunes since they were eleven years old. An example of this can be seen in Eponine’s song “On my Own.” This is one of the most famous musical theatre songs EVER. Every sixteen-year-old girl belts this out in their bedroom, dreaming of being a star. Samantha Barks sang the song beautifully, with lots of gritty realism that made the audience’s heart break. However, at the climax of the song, “The world is full of happiness that I have never known,” she is sitting down in an alley. The physical manifestation of the song did not match with the sentiment and words, at least not in the typical musical theatre sense. While this realism is appreciated and very powerful on film, I guess I just missed the heart-warming enthusiasm that can be pumped into a stage production.

Perhaps you will say I wanted the film to be cheesier, more like a stereotypical filmed musical. and to that I will say yes. After all, my favorite movie is West Side Story, where Natalie Wood (and numerous others) lip sync in front of obvious sets.

I would recommend this movie to anyone. While it may be quite the time investment, it is a solid film full of great performances and inspiring songs. However, beware of going to it thinking it will be the Les Mis of your Broadway or West End dreams. It gives of a very different vibe and is not, in my point of view, what I was expecting as a super-fan.  It is worth seeing if you are very interested in the Academy Awards, as I am, because it will most certainly be nominated for numerous awards: acting, directing, costumes, cinematography, etc.

 

What do you think of the film?

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