Out of the few gigantic movies which debuted over this holiday season, I did not expect to see Les Miserables first.
I thought it would be Django, followed by The Hobbit, then maybe Les Miz as a lollygagging third choice some time down the road but hopefully before it left theaters. I certainly did not think I would be standing in line with tickets the Friday after Christmas waiting for Les Miz.
My mother has quite a bit to do with this. She never gets to go to the movies unless it’s with my wife and I and she mentioned she wanted to see Les Miz before her Christmas vacation time ran out. A good use of the Fandango gift certificate she’d given us only a few days prior, I felt, would be to treat her to the flick of her choosing.
I’ve seen Les Miz on stage a handful of times. I saw the big anniversary special on PBS in the mid-90s with something around 100 actors who had played Jean Valjean in every conceivable country and in every conceivable language. Great soundtrack. Quite possibly one of the best musicals ever written.
When I heard there was going to be a film, I had my doubts. I immediately flashed back to 2004 when The Phantom of the Opera hit the big screen. This was the first time my wife-to-be would have any experience with a stage-production I had obsessed over when I was a teenager. I talked it up big – told her about the multiple times I had seen it in Toronto (in a theater revamped for that very production), told her stories of fog machines and trap doors and falling chandeliers and the Masque of the Red Death scene… It was a spectacle. If you missed seeing Phantom in a theater built for it, trust me, you missed something incredible.
Anyway, we go to see the Hollywood version and are treated to King Leonidas (two years prior to 300) poorly lip-synching awful versions of songs I had taken the time to memorize a decade earlier. Not to mention the rest of the cast acting like wood. I realized that Phantom was meant to be a stage spectacle and that the stage tricks and illusions were a big part of what it awesome. That movie sucked balls and I was guarded about Les Miz because I’d seen Lloyd-Webber slaughtered on the big screen before. I was braced for a large impact.
Because of my apprehension, I was absolutely blown away by this movie.
Hugh Jackman turns in a Valjean to rival the stage version. Actually, the whole cast (some of which made their bones on performing this musical prior to the flick) was phenomenal. Except for Russell Crowe, who tried really hard but in the end sounded more like a Muppet of a man (or a very manly Muppet).
The fantastic difference was that the entire cast ACTUALLY SANG. Like, while they were filming, they sang. No lip-synching, no bullshit editing. The whole thing was recorded live as they were filming which made it possible (if not entirely necessary) to use long, follow cuts during the big solo songs which, in the case of Anne Hathaway especially, conveyed so much raw emotion in a very personal way.
This was also because most scenes were shot with close-ups, allowing you to see the emotions on the faces of the actors like you’d never seen it before. There’s something to be said seeing this musical performed on stage, but it’s not nearly as personal or primal as this movie. You lose the faces of the actors on stage because they’re not recognizable. Using a few big-ticket Hollywood actors (as well as tighter camera angles than balcony seats allow) in this case didn’t go amiss as it was very easy to identify who was who. This helped in scenes where certain people have beards or are in disguise and are much more telling to the non-theater trained eye. It also made the plot a bit easier to follow in a story where there are so many named characters.
It was much more intimate and I think that had a lot to do with things. Real tears being shed while singing should not go overlooked.
The big hilarious surprise of the movie was Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham-Carter as the Innkeeper and Wife. The Innkeeper was one of those roles I always wanted to play on stage. Your Valjeans and your Fantines and your Giveres will get the bulk of the applause, but the people that make you laugh in the middle of serious drama are usually some of the most memorable. Sacha and Helena were not as trumpeted as Hugh Jackman and Anne Hathaway, but they added so much to the movie that I wouldn’t be surprised if, when this movie actually goes up for Oscar consideration, one or both of them get Best Supporting nods.
If you’ve never seen this musical on stage, you can surely experience it here and you will enjoy it. The people who have seen it on stage will be, understandably, divided in their opinions. You’ll love it because of the raw emotion and spectacle or you’ll hate it because it violates the purity of the stage version.
Theater geeks be aware, however… Colm Wilkinson has a cameo and it’s great.
All that said, see this flick. I can’t guarantee you’ll cry, but I defy you not to get at least a little foggy at some point.
Bidula’s Last Word – 8/10. Points off for Crowe and the dude who played Marius sounding like very manly Muppets (or Muppets of men).
Keep fighting the good fight.