(Les Miserables is one of the most popular stage musicals ever and is by far my personal favorite. Keep that in mind as you read my review.)
At the start, let me say this: if you’ve never seen the stage musical, and you have a heart still beating in your chest, you will likely enjoy the movie version of Les Miserable. I don’t know if you will love it, but you will probably like it.
As for me? Meh.
Because I love this story and love this show so much, I guess my expectations were way out of line. But I left the movie non-plussed. It felt like director Tom Hooper decided to forego the things that make a movie special, and instead chose to film the things that make live theater special:
Lots of live singing.
Few special effects.
The movie was true to the musical. They added a bit of spoken dialogue to flesh out the story, but nothing to make a Les Mis fanboy cringe. But the singing…
The singing was by far the worst aspect of it all. Neither Hugh Jackman as Jean Valjean nor Russell Crowe as Inspector Jauvert have the chops to carry those roles. And to be fair, very few trained singers in the world have the chops to carry those roles. They are among the most demanding in the repertoire. Jackman’s voice was a surprise. I’ve seen video of him on stage, and I thought his voice was much better. Crowe was as bad as I had feared. His style works with a rock band. It was grating as Jauvert.
The ensemble singing, which is the highlight of the stage show, felt somehow diminished – as if it was smaller than expected. I think perhaps it is partly because the dynamic range in a movie is narrower than the stage show, but also because the ensemble songs were (mostly) performed as cuts between characters, rather than allowing us to see everyone all in the same scene.
Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter as the Thenardiers somehow felt smaller than the stage version of the characters. Where the film characters were utterly despicable, the stage versions act as much-needed comic relief in such an emotionally intense show. They were not particularly comic, nor was there even much need for relief.
In fact, that cuts to the heart of my disappointment with Les Miserable the Movie. The emotional intensity of the stage show was strangely lacking, as if the flatness of the movie screen had sucked the very life out of the show. It was bright and shiny and beautifully filmed and much, much smaller than the stage show.
Let us take, for example, the barricade scenes:
Although the barricade scenes were well done, we’ve seen much bigger, much more impressive things on movie screens. Hell, I’ve seen the freakin’ Death Star destroyed on screen. But barriacades in a street in Paris?
On the other hand, when you see the barricade scene in the theatre, it is staggering. It’s almost the biggest thing you have ever seen on stage. And when Gavroche climbs down from the barricade… [shudder] It was just so much smaller on screen.
It was not all disappointing, though. Anne Hathaway’s Fantine was every bit as good as advertised. This role will likely elevate her from “star” to ”superstar” status. She absolutely killed it. Eddie Redmayne’s Marius was spectacular. I’d never heard of the guy, but he was easily the best Marius I’ve seen anywhere, stage or screen. Those two alone were worth the price of admission. Oh, I mustn’t forget Samantha Banks as Eponine. She was very good. Not great, but very good. (I think she’d be great on stage. This was once again a case where it felt as if the directing and editing flattened and enervated her performance, rather than enhancing it. )
As per the stage show, the young men of the ensemble “Drink With Me” are the strongest of the cast. The staging of “Do You Hear the People Sing” was chilling at the start but a bit anti-climactic at the end. One scene that actually worked much better on screen than on stage was “At The End of Day”. Sadly, that was the only scene that worked better than on stage. Oh, and I cannot forget the bit where Jauvert pins a medal on Gavroche. Does anyone know if that was scripted? It didn’t change the character of Jauvert, but it did serve to humanize him a little. I’d be interested to know where that little bit came from.
In summary, I am glad the movie was done. It was done competently if not brilliantly. The more people who are exposed to the story of Jean Valjean, the better our world will be. So kudos as due. But I am also sorry that director Tom Hooper made the choices that he did. I was hoping his film version would do for Les Miserable what Rob Marshall’s Chicago did for that show. Sadly, he missed it. This wasn’t a strike out, and it wasn’t a home run. More like an infield hit to advance the runners. Competent, but uninspiring.
In short, Les Miserable the Movie was a massive disappointment to this Les Mis lover. But if you’ve never seen the stage show, ignore this review and go see it. You’ll be glad you did.