Okay, I’ve seen Les Misérables. Some in the audience applauded at the end. I was not one of them. This is a timeless story, and the movie has a fine cast of actors. With the exception of Anne Hathaway, who both sang and acted the role of Fantine with exquisite and heart-breaking tenderness, the best I can say of this movie is that the actors acted it well.
In San Francisco, I saw an incredible production of Les Miz performed by the original Broadway touring company. I own recordings of the original Broadway production and the 10th Anniversary “dream cast” concert performance. I’ve listened to both several times over the years. I saw the 25th Anniversary Concert production. Overkill, you say? No. This is a great story set to incredible music, and all these productions employed phenomenal musical talent; voices that transport you to exquisite heights and depths of feeling.
There have been many adaptations of this Victor Hugo classic. In this adaptation, the director Tom Hooper was entirely concerned with the drama of the story. Unfortunately, he set aside as secondary the fact that this is a dramatic MUSICAL. By failing to recognize the power of this music, Tom Hooper robbed audiences of what might have been a truly memorable film.
The one person who was able to deliver vocally was Anne Hathaway. The fact that Tom Hooper required her to lose 25 pounds for this role is criminal. To sing, one needs strength. How she overcame this deficit is beyond me, but she did it.
Hugh Jackman was also required to lose 25 pounds. Jean Valjean is a great bear of a man— strong enough to lift an ox-cart by himself. Jackman is strong, but he’s always been on the lean side. Why require him to be even leaner? His voice is better than the one we heard in this movie; he couldn’t overcome the 25 pound deficit. Jean Valjean’s songs require a big voice, but Jackman’s singing voice throughout is thin and often nasal.
Russell Crowe is not a singer, and did better than I expected he would. But is that good enough? Even the choral work fails in this production; it is too often garbled. There’s no power in a song if you can’t understand the words that are being sung.
When you know how splendid this music is, when you’ve heard these songs performed by wonderful voices, and when what you get on the big screen is this star-driven-not-up-to-what-the-music-requires effort, you want to cover your ears. At times, I did just that. I couldn’t bear it.
Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter do an engaging turn as the Innkeeper and his wife, but Tom Hooper takes all the merriment out of their signature song. During “Master of the House,” Hooper gives the audience a series of visuals that are, in a word, disgusting. The beauty of theatre is that it leaves a lot to your imagination. The wonder of a good lyric sung well is that it gives you a vivid description without having to give you a full graphic picture. How to delight in the quintessential cynicism of this song while seeing rats decapitated?
As you have by now surmised, I didn’t like this movie. But it does achieve, in certain scenes, both emotional and visual power. It succeeds in reminding us that these stories have been played out through the centuries and are still with us: the misery of the poor, the wealthy elite who turn their backs on that misery, the suffering caused by corrupt governments, the injustice meted out by draconian legal systems, and the connivers who profit from the horror of war. We are able to survive this dark tale because of the nobility, compassion, honor, sacrifice and love we see in Hugo’s heroes and heroines: Jean Valjean, Fantine, Marius, and Cossette. They give us hope in the midst of the misery. But having gone through the wretchedness of the world portrayed in Les Misérables, one cannot help but wonder, how long will we endure this? Can we not band together and bring an end to such misery?
God, I hope so.