Dee Discusses: Les Miserables

Posted: January 3, 2013 by Dee in Dee, General Media, Movies, Musicals
Tags: , , , , , , ,

A few things to say about the trailer above quick: my first reaction was both bad and good. I was a little startled at how unfocused Hathaway’s voice sounded in this, because I’m used to the beautiful stage version of “I Dreamed a Dream.” My reaction was ‘wtf why is she singing this so shakily?’ And then I heard about it all being live singing, which explained it and I warmed to the idea with time. I also started to tear up watching it. Les Miserables is one of my favorite musicals. It happens to be one of my favorite books. I’m a sucker for tragedies, and this is about as tragic as you can get. My father raised me loving musicals, he’s a big fan himself, and I saw this fairly young on stage. Probably too young, but I was precocious and the music itself is beautiful. I love the soundtrack and listened to it non-stop at a point. When I got a little older I read the book itself and really loved it. Victor Hugo’s an impressive writer. So much like The Hobbit, which I just talked about, I came in with expectations. Or low expectations? I think it was mostly “please don’t be terrible!” I want to address a few problems/positives about this film, but let’s do a plot summary first. I’m also going to do a little more of my Bookcase reviews here by asking/answering questions of myself.

After the first French Revolution (lol first of many), a prisoner Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) is let out on parole. He was arrested for stealing bread when his family was starving, but since he tried to escape his sentence went from a few years to twenty. It’s finally time for him to get away, but the policeman in charge Javert (Russell Crowe) warns him he’ll always carry the sign of a former convict on him. He learns the hard way that being free doesn’t mean being happy. He has no money, no one will hire him because of his status, and he has no family left. A priest takes pity on him, giving him a bed and food, and out of desperation he steals their silver and runs off. When he is arrested, the priest says he can keep everything and start a new life. Humbled by this, he finds new faith in himself so he sheds off the memory of Jean Valjean and escapes his parole, taking on a new name and a new life with his money. This is of a mayor in a prosperous area, and Javert comes to help him keep the order, not realizing (at first) this was the same prisoner. He does start to suspect him, but someone else is claimed to be Valjean. Valjean realizes letting someone else pay for his crime is not acceptable, and if he wants to be a better man he can’t let it happen, so he reveals his true identity. At the same time, a woman named Fantine (Anne Hathaway) is tossed out of one of his factories by jealous co-workers and a lusty foreman when they find out she has an illegitimate child. She sells her hair, her teeth, and eventually becomes a prostitute so she can send money to her daughter Cosette. Valjean feels responsible for her fate and sits with her when she dies, promising to find Cosette and protect her. He begs Javert to let him at least find the girl and give her money, but he’s unrelenting. So Javert runs again, taking Cosette with him.

A decade later, everyone’s paths meet again and the people are still starving and talking of revolution. A group of young students want to stage a protest and violently stand against the elite. Marius (Eddie Redmayne) is one of them, the grandson of a rich man who wants to be more like his friends, and he falls in love with a grown up Cosette (Amanda Seyfried) at first sight.  He is oblivious that his best friend Eponine (Samantha Barks) is desperately in love with him, and she agrees to help him find Cosette. Valjean thinks Javert has found him again, so he prepares to flee with Cosette, and Marius decides to stay at the barricade with his friends since he can’t have the one he loves. Also, duty? Duty and honor. This goes about as well as you can expect when a small group of non-soldiers tries to go up against a huge group of trained soldiers. There’s a reason this is considered a tragedy, and that people come out of it crying. The book goes into a lot more detail and is historically accurate, so I’d read that if you want a bigger picture of what was going on, but the musical does a good job of pulling an affective story out of it. Does the movie? Wellllll.

Live Singing

So in this movie, a big deal is that the actors are all singing live. He’s recording their performances in one go, so you can see every tear and emotion flicker over their face as they feel the song as well as the character. For me, it really works from a film standpoint. I wouldn’t say it works as well on a soundtrack, and I do personally wish for the soundtrack they cleaned up the songs a bit. I think a lot of these actors do have a stronger range than it seems like in the movie, with a studio it’d be easier to hear it, so I’m not sure I would like the soundtrack on its own. I’ll prefer my musical version for that. But in the movie? It works. Sometimes in the wrong direction, ahem Russell Crowe ahem. A lot of people were buzzing earlier that Hathaway would get a nomination for Fantine, despite the fact that Fantine has a small role, and I’m not surprised she did. Her raw emotion and pain in the song might not make it beautiful to listen to, but jeez will it stab you through the heart. In the end, I’m really glad he chose to go this way. It sometimes made me wince because I’m used to clean sound for musicals, but what it sacrificed it made up for in performance.

Favorite Song/Least Favorite

My favorite song from the musical is the same as the movie, so woot. It’s the obvious “Do You Hear The People Sing?” It’s the most famous song for a reason. It’s remarkably catchy, it’s emotional, it puts forth a lot of what the revolution was all about, and both versions of it (the first and the ending) are lovely. I get a tiny bit choked up every time I hear it. Don’t judge me. I want to give special notice here for Eddie Redmayne’s intense version of “Empty Chairs and Empty Tables.” The reason for it being that I wouldn’t call that one of my favorites before, but I think he performed it so well in the movie that it rose in my estimation. This is an example of how the live singing with the performance really paid off.  For least favorite I’m going with the song “Suddenly” they added for the movie. Apparently it was a possibility in the original musical, but it was cut. I think it should’ve stayed cut. It felt out of place and unnecessary and they cut so many other songs that it baffled me they had to keep that in.

Best Performance/Worst Performance

Hm. I’ll give it to Hugh because while he didn’t always work, he was committed. He threw himself headfirst into this role and he respected what it meant to musical theater. This was probably a part he dreamed of playing due to his background, and you could tell how much he truly loved it. He felt it sincerely, he connected with the character, and he made it believable. I do think he had a few moments where he was going overboard, but eh, Jean Valjean’s something of a martyr diva at times. He goes overboard. I think in the end he did a great job of the character’s conflicting desires and struggles, and his death was painful and sweet all at once. Good on you, Hugh. On the opposite scale is Russell Crowe. He’s come under fire from a lot of people, mostly musical theater fans, and it’s for good reason. Now I do want to say that I think he did try. He had some good moments. His voice isn’t up to the standard, but he didn’t fail either. I called it passable, and I do think he was. He was okay. But Javert can’t be okay. He has to be amazing. This is the main antagonist of the story, and his part is intense and strong and you need someone with that menacing overly noble attitude. Sometimes I felt like Crowe was sleepwalking through his part. He lacked the passion he needed, outside of whenever he was playing against Jackman. He definitely upped his energy in the duets and stand offs, and those were fairly good, but on his own? Weaksauce. I’m going to give him the “you tried” star here, but I really wish a stronger actor/singer was chosen for this role. It’s vital to the story, and he fell flat. Remember I’m saying this from the point of view from someone who knows the play, so I’m biased. His performance might’ve been fine for any new viewer.

Play vs. Movie

This was inevitable. Okay obviously the answer is the play is better, and anyone who has seen the play understands why. The music is sweeping and strong and gets into your bones, the performances and the staging gives it a much bigger and more intense feel. It is written as a musical, so of course the play is going to be better in its own genre. Just like the book is best for its genre. Do I think this is the best the film industry could’ve done? Meeeeeeh. For now, yes. There are a few flaws. The pacing is off (that’s more due to screen time, they had to move fast and cut out segments), and some of the physical settings came off as hokey. The barricade itself for example isn’t anywhere near the vast and incredible one in the play which takes up the entire center. They do show a giant barricade at the end which is amazing, so I wonder why it had to seem so suffocating and small in the movie itself. I think some of the camera work was too much. They kept zooming in and out of the actors are they performed, and they didn’t take as much advantage of the space around them or the setting they could’ve used to make it seem bigger instead of smaller. The more I pick it apart, the more flaws might come out, so I’ll just say they did a good job adapting this play to the screen. The choices they make I can see them doing it for the medium they were in. The important part for me is that they got the heart of the story right, and that they went all in rather than playing it safe, which they did. Except in the case of Hollywood casting, but I have to just accept they wanted stars. For every Aaron Tveit they had an Amanda Seyfried, so what can you do?

End result, I loved the movie. All these quibbles are the quibbles of a fan, but at my heart I came out of it feeling what I did from the play and the book. It’s flawed, but so is the script, and so are the characters and the story and the time period and etc., etc. It worked. I don’t blame audiences for not feeling it as much, but it looks like it’s doing well and was nominated for three Golden Globes, so someone up there liked it. I wonder if this will move toward more musicals getting made. Chicago did lead to a few, but none of them had the history and stage power of Les Miserables. I’ll be interested to see what comes from it. I’d love to see Man of la Mancha. I’m just saying. I could probably talk about this movie and play for a novel, so I’m going to try to cut myself off now. I’d recommend seeing it, seeing the play if you can, reading the book, and listening to the music.

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