When I first came out of the theater, I figured… solid B+. OK film with both glaring problems and great accomplishments. But the longer I went on to think about it and discuss it with friends, the more the glaring problems started to overshadow the great accomplishments, and now I’m at a place where I’d rate the movie a solid C- and pass on seeing it again.
First things first. Les Miserables is my favorite musical. It has been ever since I first heard the soundtrack, which my mother has owned for probably as long as the musical has been out. It’s one of the few piano books I can play through front to back without skipping songs, it’s a musical I’ve seen quite a few times live (and that I still think I haven’t seen enough times, despite multiple viewings). So when I heard the movie was being made, I was of course, a bit nervous at first. Then again, it couldn’t possibly be worse than the non-musical version made a few years back with Liam Neeson. Neeson or not, that was a bad movie. Then, I heard they were filming the singing live, and suddenly I was excited. Surely this meant that the actors cast had the chops to do such a thing! No one in their right mind would make that decision unless they knew without a shadow of a doubt the whole cast could do it.
Alas, it was not meant to be.
There are a lot of things about this film that did work. Some things that worked so well, I wish the rest of the movie had been that good, because it would have been a mind-blowing film. So I’ll save those for the end of this post. Might as well end on a high note!
So first, The Bad:
1. It turns out singing and acting at the same time is something very few people can do. Unfortunately, only a couple people in this movie really nailed it, and one of them died about 10 minutes in. The rest were varying shades of skilled. The worst of them, though, completely destroyed the characters they were playing, with the greatest offenders being Russell Crowe as Javert and Amanda Seyfried as Cosette. Russell Crowe has been panned in other reviews as the worst thing about the movie, and I actually disagree… but only because I think he is closely the SECOND worst thing in the movie, following Seyfried. I typically like Amanda Seyfried. She was great on Veronica Mars, and she was a joy in Mamma Mia! and Mean Girls. But the role of Cosette was clearly out of her vocal comfort zone, and she spent all of her songs trying so hard to just hit the right notes that acting fell completely out the window. This was only compounded by the fact that since she was obviously out of her comfort zone with regard to vocal range, there was was absolutely no power or passion behind her vocals, either. She failed both the acting and singing that was so essential if this live-singing endeavor was going to work. Russell Crowe’s issues were largely the same, except that he wasn’t reaching for notes he couldn’t hit — the part was within his range (and they changed the few notes for him from the soundtrack that he likely couldn’t have hit, like the “you’ll wear a different chain” low note in the beginning of “Confrontation”). His biggest problem was that it seemed for the entire film that he didn’t actually want to be in it. He sang the songs, but just like Seyfried, he lacked passion. Coupled with the fact that he looked completely uncomfortable in every last scene he was in, it really just seemed like he took the role because he was desperate for a paycheck.
2. The story of the rebellion isn’t different from the stage show at all, but somehow in the translation from stage show to film adaptation, the stupidity of the whole endeavor was magnified about a thousand times. The passion and idealism of the students went from an optimistic, hopeful thing with heroic overtones to something completely different. Rather than reformers, the students came across as petulant idiots who got bored and picked up some guns. The heart behind the rebellion wasn’t there, and without a convincing passion for the idealism behind the rebellion from the students, particularly Enjolras, it ends up completely flat. I have a lot of conflicting thoughts about the students, but this is really the heart of what is bothering me about the film in its entirety. The naive yet tragically still somehow heroic deaths of all those people just lost so much of their meaning in the translation to film.
3. The Thenardiers. Now, I actually really liked Helena Bonham Carter and Sasha Baron Cohen in these roles. But the parts of the movie with the Thenardiers did not feel like they were the same movie as the rest of it. While their characters are necessary to balance out the doom and gloom of the rest of the show, the over-the-top antics that make them a delight in the stage show made them obnoxious trolls in the film. It did not help at all that the editing on their biggest number, “Master of the House,” completely demolished the greatest points of humor in the song. You could barely even hear her shout “Raise up the master’s ass” at the end of the song, the way it was edited.
4. “One Day More.” This, for those of you unaware, is the climactic moment just before the intermission in the stage show. The song starts with the main characters introducing their own themes, one by one, and then builds and builds to a choral roar, all the different melodies of the show intertwining beautifully (something that takes skill to do as a writer, and that deservedly gets lots of praise when done well), until the entire cast plus the chorus and maybe even a few lighting technicians are on the stage marching behind Enjolras, the red flag of rebellion waving behind them, singing “Tomorrow we’ll discover what our God in heaven has in store, one more dawn, one more day–ONE DAY MORE!” and the lights cut and everyone in the audience shuffles around trying not to let each other see that their faces are soaking wet with the tears that come unhindered when you are overwhelmed with absolute awe and sheer wonderment. That is what “One Day More” should be. This movie destroyed it. Instead of letting the parts build upon one another, they strangely highlighted the parts based on who was currently on-screen, drowning out important countermelodies and completely giving up on the slow, consistent build that really makes “One Day More” what it is. It was probably the biggest musical disappointment in the whole show.
5. Where was Eponine’s harmony with Fantine as Valjean dies? What was the point of removing that? It’s one of the freaking prettiest parts of the whole damn musical! Here, have a listen (it starts at 5:55). Also, as an aside, that is what Valjean’s higher ranged stuff should sound like.
6. “Stars.” The whole thing. I’ll admit my upset about this is probably a little irrational and most definitely biased, because it’s my favorite song from the entire musical. But whoever put Russell Crowe’s tepid, unfeeling, passionless ass in the role of Javert should be taken out back and shot. When the song can be this? Why?
7. Speaking of Javert, whoever did the sound effects on his suicide pulled me right out of that scene. The emotional power of it (seriously, have another listen) was already gone thanks to Crowe’s Javert being as compelling as a wet rag, but that disgusting, overloud crack as he hit the thing in the water was entirely unnecessary.
Which brings me to the second section, Stuff I Still Haven’t Made My Mind Up About:
1. Hugh Jackman. He was one of the very, very few people in this film capable of singing and acting simultaneously, and he carried quite a hefty bit of the movie on his own. But his vocal range is so clearly not suited for Valjean. It would have been absolutely perfect if Valjean didn’t have entire songs in a range where it seemed Hugh Jackman had to test every inch of his capabilities to even get to the notes, let alone try and act while singing them. I mean, he did a bang-up job. He brought me to raggedy sniffles at least a few times (the first time being “Valjean’s Soliloquy,” right at “he told me that I have a soul… how does he know?” so you know… 5 minutes in). I just think he was woefully miscast, vocally speaking. Had the role been entirely in the lower ranges of Valjean’s stuff, he would have been perfect.
2. Samantha Barks. Don’t get me wrong, her singing was some of the best in the movie. And she was not a bad actress at all. However, I have always liked Eponine best when she provides a really good contrast to Cosette, and I found both Eponine and Cosette very sweet and mild in this adaptation. Eponine didn’t have enough of an edge to her. It’s odd, because I like Barks in the 25th Anniversary performances, she gives Eponine a bit more attitude in them (“On My Own”, just for show). I almost wonder if having to act at a camera at the same time changed things for her. In any case, I found myself wondering when the song would end while watching the movie, which is not terribly normal.
And finally, Stuff That Was Awesome
1. The students! Oh my god, the students. “Red and Black” was brilliant. The casting of Enjolras was brilliant. Everything about that song was brilliant.
2. Anne Hathaway! Holy crap, that woman nailed it. I would not be surprised at all if she took the damned Oscar home and she was only in the movie for maybe a grand total of 10 minutes. I was actually nervous about her, too, which is a little weird looking back — I guess there was so much “can she do it?” in the media before the film came out that I fell for it. Well, hats off, Anne Hathaway, you fucking blew my mind.
3. Young Cosette! “Castle on a Cloud” was perfect. The end.
4. Flipping “Lovely Ladies” and “I Dreamed a Dream” was a brilliant editing choice. The opening lines of “I Dreamed a Dream” are just nailed home after seeing Fantine fall so far down the ladder that she’s sold her hair and teeth and ended up sleeping with people just to make enough to scrape by. Those lines, “There was a time when men were kind,” coupled with the imagery of her lying in that box, like it’s her coffin, just nailed home how sad her life had become. And then Anne Hathaway sang all of “I Dreamed a Dream” in one continuous shot, sobbing and snot bubbles and all.
5. “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables.” Well, and Eddie Redmayne in general. I really think Marius was the strongest character in the film, singing-and-acting-as-a-combination-wise. He was practically perfect in every way. The Mary Poppins of Les Miserables. One can even forgive his overwobbly chin on long notes, considering how beautiful the sounds he was making ended up being. Keep on wobbling your chin, good sir. Keep right on.
6. The whole finale. I was a sobbing, sniffling, leaking mess as soon as Valjean sang, “Yes, Cosette, forbid me now to die,” and everything (minus the missing harmony I mentioned above) from that point on was just golden. I’m sure I came out of there looking like my own father had just died, I just lost it completely. The feelings I missed from “One Day More” came in doubletime for the finale. If the afterlife is a million people singing a rousing chorus atop a barricade with full backing orchestra in booming THX Surround, then I’m a believer. I want Valjean’s heaven to be my heaven, too. For all the ups and downs this movie had, it ended on the highest of high notes, because everything that had to do with Valjean’s heaven was pure perfection.