Friday night, I was blessed with the opportunity to see Les Misérables before it officially hits theaters. (Elin, my gratitude regarding this is endless, truly; I don’t think I could ever say “thank you” enough. The entire evening is an evening I’ll never forget.) As I sit to write a “review,” though, I realize it is near impossible. The movie adaptation of this beloved musical is at the same time enormously scaled and compassionately intimate. How are you to “review” something that makes you feel so much? I’ve since decided to call this, my Les Misérables experience.
To say that I loved the film is an understatement.
If you knew anything and/or everything about the novel and/or musical, the film will enlighten you in a whole new way. Although I do agree that its accessibility will undoubtedly be difficult for some moviegoers, fans on the whole should be pleased to see new directions and interpretations of characters (for novel aficionados) and especially songs (for lovers of the musical). Yes, there are a lot of close-ups throughout the film; however, only one in particular irritated me (near the tail end of “Stars”) and, in fact, the tightness of the camera on its characters helped to reveal so much about them and their struggles. Few examples:
• Jean Valjean: In “Valjean’s Soliloquy,” Hugh Jackman goes through a colorful spectrum of emotions. He is angry and vindictive, mournful and confused, dedicated and determined. For Hugh, it isn’t a singing contest in the slightest; it’s about emoting as much as possible within a limited time frame, which practically means skinning himself alive to reveal his inner turmoil. As he shifts into “I am reaching but I fall,” he crumbles apart on screen, and I’d actually consider it an alluringly uncomfortable moment, as it feels like we’re exploiting someone’s privacy rather than a mere character’s. In a single song, he completes an entire character arc, reinventing himself by the end to become an honest man.
• Fantine: All the raves you’ve heard about her are spot-on. Over the years, I’d come to loathe “I Dreamed a Dream” because it was so overdone, so overplayed, so boring. Anne Hathaway’s take is the antithesis of the beautiful aria audiences are accustomed to. It is raw and energized, the long-shots on her face framed by oppressing darkness acting like a window to her soul. For the first time, I not only heard the lyrics but felt them. Her take on “and still I dream he comes to me” in particular really knocked the wind out of me, her wistfulness infectious as much as it is agonizing.
• Enjolras: Oftentimes, it seems as if Enjolras is played as an unfairly one-dimensional character. He’s the steadfast chief of the revolutionaries, fearless, brave, strong, sure… but he was also a young student, passionate but a little aimless in his efforts. Aaron Tveit plays Enjolras like a real person, fiercely focused on his cause yet balancing it with an edge of understandable vulnerability. He is not a ruthless leader, but an empathetic one. While “Red & Black” might have emphasized his commitment to Patria, that vulnerability is on full display when hearing the news of his barricade being the last to stand. Reasonable close-ups reign over many of the characters in the film, and Aaron utilizes his opportunities magnificently, conveying compassion for his people through both courage and regret.
• Javert: Similar to Enjolras, Javert can often feel as flat as cardboard. Relentlessly chasing a man for years can make one wonder whether or not he has better things to do; however, Russell Crowe – especially near the end – managed to convey the influence of his moral compass. During the instrumental “Bring Him Home,” Javert executes a single gesture that rightens his righteousness. With his previous code of judgement thwarted, you see his face break as he looses grip of what “justice” means, serving as a catalyst (along with Valjean letting him go free) to his self-determined fate.
(Overall, there are a lot of acting choices in the film that – although maybe jarring upon first listen – I actually missed when revisiting the more traditional recordings of the songs. The film feels so full, each character daring you to fight, dream, hope, and/or love with them.)
Admittedly, my least favorite part of Les Misérables has always been the love story between Cosette and Marius (and don’t get me started on the “love triangle”). Especially in the musical, it’s compacted and difficult to reason with. Love at first sight is always tricky to pull off but is even more so when the story moves quickly with little time to spare for romance. I also have never really liked Marius much as a character, aside from “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables” and his handkerchief-sniffing buffoonery within the novel. However, I loved both Cosette and Marius in this movie-musical adaptation. It’s not even that they had more screen time, but their presence was firmly rooted by quirks and details established by both actors and screenwriter.
• Marius: I meant Eddie Redmayne no ill wishes when I included him in my dream cast as Marius over one year ago, despite the character being one my least favorites of the story. On the contrary, I entrusted him to help breathe new life into Marius — which he did, thoroughly. In this film adaptation of the musical, Eddie makes inspired choices for the character (evident in singing choices, like “oh, my friends, my friends don’t ask me…”). He doesn’t seem like a lovesick puppy, devoid of any characterization outside of Cosette. At the barricade, he is driven by the revolutionary cause; he has one particular moment of near-sacrifice (borrowed from the novel) that cements his role as fully realized. And when it comes to the love story, his fumbling, awkward nature saves it from staleness.
• Cosette: On the opposite coin of Marius, I adore Cosette in the novel and yet never had much of a connection to her in the musical. To so many people – myself included – she sort of just exists. Amanda Seyfried does wondrous things with her faces when she sings, particularly when she’s confronting Valjean about his past during “In My Life,” touching his manacle scars from years of hard labor in Toulon. You feel her intrigue upon love at first glance, her confidence as a young woman upon the courtship with Marius, her struggle to understand her father, and every ounce of loss is knitted on her face in the finale. I was wary of Amanda’s casting the most, but she enhanced my love for Cosette.
• Eponine: I’ve never been much of a fan of Eponine (in the musical or novel), but Samantha Barks is a pretty special actress in her first film role. She deludes the audience from thinking she’s only a street urchin, letting her songs sell us on how she’s capable of – even desperate for – acceptance. It’s beyond love for her; she feels validated by Marius. I especially appreciated how she sang “A Little Fall of Rain,” turning it whisper-soft as if actually on the throes of death. When she never uttered that last “grow,” you truly felt the loss of her — not as a character, but as a young, unfortunate girl gone too soon.
Delightfully, unlike the various clips released on the web and shown on talk shows, the orchestrations are proudly on display in the film. The actors no longer sound like they’re verging on singing a capella; the score is huge and it soars throughout. There are some new instrumental twists that are chilling, used in soliloquies by both Valjean and Javert. In a way, the orchestration itself is its own character, consenting to movement with the actors.
But, here’s the thing: no form of art is without flaws. To expect otherwise would be expecting the world to bend to you. When critiquing someone else’s vision, you have to allow leeway for different interpretations. To walk into Les Misérables expecting everything – a direct stage adaptation, camera angles to your liking, “perfect” singing (whatever that means to you), more/less dialogue, for the singers to sound exactly like your favorite previous performers – is, ultimately, an excuse for tripe. You’re not going to get everything you want. You just aren’t. Trust me: go into the film with an open mind, having prepared yourself for the heightened reality expected from any musical (onstage or off), and submerge yourself in the timeless story.
In which I ramble about specific likes/dislikes:
I realize Les Mis is not going to be for everyone. A sung-through musical with a barrage of sadness and some experimental filmmaking (like singing live on set) is not necessarily an easy sell to either critics or movie fans. But for those willing to believe in Tom Hooper’s vision, the movie-musical adaptation is a perfect holiday gift. Seeing it presented in this light, with actors reinventing their characters and a wide scope allowing for a better understanding of the environment at large, inspired me to love the story even more than I already did. Les Misérables has always been about and for the people, so I hope that it maintains its reputation of reaching out and moving others as much as it moved me.