Les Misérables succeeds on so many levels, I almost lost count. In many ways, it’s a film in the narrow category of films made from sung-through musicals. In that context, it really only has The Phantom of the Opera to compare itself to, which is a fairly low bar for a comparison. Yet aside from the benefits of being a rather singular kind of film , it faces a number of cinematic and musical challenges with nary a false note (pun intended).
The quibbles: It’s too long by a half-hour, and particularly flags in the last section of the film. How director Tom Hooper handles the last few sequences bogs the film down, but is consistent with what he does in the earlier part of the film, where he finds much greater success with his material.
One has a choice of where to place the emphasis in a dramatic epic; one can emphasize the scope and sweep, or the film can focus on the human drama. Few, such as Lawrence of Arabia, can manage the delicate balance of both. Here, while there are occasional stunning epic shots, Hooper has chosen to focus on the human element, to the film’s great benefit and occasional detriment. For a musical epic, it’s a major artistic decision, and Hooper has somewhat controversially handled it by a rigorous insistence on the human face. (In some ways, Les Misérables is today’s version of Dreyer’s silent classic The Passion of Joan of Arc, with its dogged focus on the face at the expense of the sets.) The tight focus on the face has given rise to accusations of emotional manipulation, which might be considered were it not for the integrity of the performances. This is not a film about revolution, or uprisings, or economic inequities, or even a specific historical moment. It’s about survival, manipulation, suffering, selflessness, and grace versus law—and specifically how the individuals feel about it all. Set against a background that could have been explored from any number of angles (think what a Bertolucci or Godard would have done with this!), Hooper makes this a film of musically expressed emotions. For those expecting anything else, they have been or will be disappointed.
Once that emphasis is understood, Hooper’s well-documented decision to have the singing done live makes even more sense. With the focus on the live musical expression, Les Misérables becomes a classic example of how adaptation from stage to film is supposed to work. In general, the musical numbers are excellent models of how to keep the drama and immediacy alive while accounting for the realism of film as opposed to the stage. The “beauty” of the musical expression is sacrificed in each number as the singers occasionally speak, play with rhythms, and vary their musical tones wildly (but legitimately) at times. The vast majority of the time, it works.
The great case in point is Anne Hathaway’s “I Dreamed a Dream,” which unless there is a Les Miz backlash, will certainly net her the Oscar. Yes, it’s incredibly emotional and raw, and the cold heart might consider it manipulative. But she makes the thousand near-perfect musical and dramatic decisions throughout the song that earn her the right to go to the edge expressively, while maintaining the integrity of the story, the drama, the emotions, and yes, the music itself. Yes, it’s a tear-jerking scene, but the moment and her work here make it work.
This brings us to the casting, which is the greatest strength of the film. Yes, the film looks great, sounds great, and has Hooper’s unusual mise-en-scène that chooses to isolate a character somewhere in a corner of the frame, either lost or overwhelmed by the surroundings (see saw a lot of that in The King’s Speech). But it’s the casting that makes this delicate balance of acting, song, and story work so well. Other than looking a little too tall and strong (even with the weight loss), Hathaway nails her role in terms of acting and song as strongly as anyone in the film (or in any other musical film, in fact).
Almost as strong as Hathaway is Eddie Redmayne (My Week with Marilyn), whom the camera loves and is as accessible and sympathetic as any young actor in films today. He’s a (surprise) real singer, and the loveliness and occasional lightness of the voice combines with a dramatic ability to act through the song and the lyrics to create some exquisite moments in the film, especially in “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables,” which occasionally rivals “I Dreamed a Dream” for beauty, intensity and impact. But it also exemplifies the downside of Hooper’s approach. The film stays relentlessly focused on Redmayne’s expressive face throughout this song, but if ever there was a need for flashbacks or a look around at the stripped down room, it was here. The performance makes it work, but only because of the actor’s talent. This was a moment that could have used some cuts away from the main performer, and it’s just barely rescued by the actor’s skill.
Hugh Jackman in the lead role of Jean Valjean is a good choice, though his voice is just “good” and the score strains it and brings out an unfortunately nasality. But he acts through his singing, like Hathaway and Redmayne, and has the necessary tenderness, masculinity, strength and kindness for the role; in fact, the earlier scenes of the tough-and-bitter Valjean are much less believable than the later Valjean transformed by grace. He can’t put any kind of stamp on the classic “Bring Him Home,” unlike what Hathaway accomplished; he just doesn’t have it vocally. But as Hooper does with Russell Crowe’s songs occasionally, what is lacking vocally is made up with sweeping camera movements and epic aerial shots. It’s not the same as a voice that can nail the notes with conviction, but it’s a decent and intelligent substitute that creates moments the voices can’t.
Amanda Seyfried as Cosette reflects the part: pretty, fairly inconsequential, and light. Her voice is small but lovely, and her insistent vibrato is well served by a score that allows her to hit the notes and get off them without warbling. She looks and sounds the part, and that works for the film.
And then there’s Russell Crowe, an actor of strength and authority who can sing, but not the way the film needs. His voice is soft and at odds with Javert’s relentless focus. And I can’t believe I’m writing this about Crowe, but he lacks the character’s intensity. He doesn’t sing poorly, but there’s a disconnect between him and the character, and the singing voice Crowe possesses and the musical passion and force the role demands. His acting skills almost carry the day, almost….
Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham-Carter as the Thénardiers aren’t as over-the-top as feared, though he is given a bit too much comic business to do (arguably his strength). She has the better voice, but is surprisingly subdued compared to him and his frenzied actions. It’s a tough act to pull off outside of the stage, but it works here.
A happy surprise is Aaron Tveit as Enjolras the revolutionary. He’s a relatively new Broadway star, and has the most solid voice of anyone in the cast. He also has the acting chops necessary to make a believable leader and a dramatic foil for the love-struck Marius (Redmayne) In fact, he could have easily done Marius, but this is still a star-making role for him.
Samantha Barks as Eponine (“On My Own,” etc.) again demonstrates how one moves a song from stage to film. Watch her performance as Eponine at the 25th anniversary concert presentation of Les Miz, and then watch her in the same role here. It’s not a wonder why she got the part. Of course she nails things vocally, but adjusts the performance to the realism of film and of Hooper’s approach to the songs. Were it not for Hathaway, she’d be the talk of the film.
In an age when musicals are undergoing a major identity crisis, it’s encouraging to see a musical adaptation done with such intelligence and such acting/singing talent. Performance and spectacle here are not a matter of the voice alone, as with most musicals, but the interpretation of musical line and lyric that fits the realist element of the film medium and the director’s vision of a film of faces and expression. It shares a few of the weaknesses of Phantom in its resolve to use the whole Broadway score, but it happily outpaces that film in nearly every respect.