Wednesday, January 02, 2013

Some Thoughts about Les Miserables - The Film

Before commenting on my experience of viewing the newly released film version of Les Miserables, I wanted a chance to ruminate on the experience of seeing the movie twice.  I saw it on Christmas morning at the first possible showing I could find.   During that viewing, I found myself noticing technical acting and directing choices, comparing scenes with their stage equivalents, critiquing the singing, etc.  Overall, I enjoyed it, but I wanted to see it again to just let the story wash over me de novo.  That second viewing took place yesterday.  Here are some random thoughts on the overall experience of seeing the iconic musical translated and transported to the screen.  I share these thoughts in no particular order of priority:
  • The performances given by Hugh Jackman as Jean Valjean and Anne Hathaway as Fantine as as good as it gets - certain Oscar nominations for both actors.  They acted through their singing in powerful and moving ways.  Bravo!
  • The film is visually stunning, and adds a touch of realism not possible in the stage version.  For example, the opening scene of the galley slaves pulling a ship into dry dock in the midst of a storm sets the right tone for establishing Prisoner #24601 as part of a sea of miserable wretches.  The scene of Valjean pulling Marius through the sewers of Paris took my breath away.  I could almost smell the miasma that emanated from them as they were confronted by Javert.
  • The chemistry between Amanda Seyfriend as the adult Cosette and Eddie Redmayne as Marius worked well for me.  I liked them both in their roles.  The tragic "Empty Chairs at Empty Tables" was the high point of Redmayne's performance.
  • Samantha Barks came to the film from the stage cast of the 25th Anniversary production, and carried off the translation beautifully.  In fact, perhaps a bit too beautifully.  Her lovely eyebrows were a little too perfect for a street urchin, but I am beginning to quibble here over fine points.
  • I think Russell Crowe was badly miscast as Javert.  He does not look like any Javert I have seen on stage or imagined in my mind.  But the real problem was with his singing.  His singing is not bad; he was once a singer in a band.   The problems is that unlike all of the other principal actors in this film, he seemed so intent on singing the right notes that it did not feel that he was acting the songs - he was merely singing them.  This made him stand out egregiously from the rest of the actors.
  • Sacha Baron Cohen as M. Thenardier, the Inn Keeper, and Helena Bonham Carter as Madame Thenardier were fine, but surprisingly distracting.  Whenever I have watched the stage version, I have enjoyed the song "Master of the House" as comic relief from the tension and emotions of Fantine's death and Cosette's plaintive song "Castle on a Cloud."  In the film, I found it less effective and even somewhat annoying.  The clownish behavior of the two characters works better on stage than it does in close-up on the screen.
  • Colm Wilkinson, who originated the role of Valjean on stage in London  and Broadway, plays the small but pivotal role of the Bishop.  I loved the casting choice when I first learned about it - tying the stage and screen versions together organically.  But Wilkinson's face is one better served by the distance that the stage provides rather than the close-ups that the screen requires.  As he was singing the very serious lyrics that led to Valjean's salvation and transformation, he looked as if he were either smiling or smirking.  Again, I quibble over small details that most viewers less familiar with the story and less obsessive about "getting it right" may not even notice.
  • I loved the choice to close the loop and have the Bishop re-introduced in Valjean's death scene.  That entire sequence is stunning  - beginning with Cosette and Marius leaving their wedding reception to discover Valjean dying at the convent  - up through the panoramic ending with the entire cast mounting the barricade in a cinematic version of a curtain call.  The director pulls out all the stops to  make sure than anyone in the audience not already moved to tears by the power of the story must lay aside any remaining defenses and surrender to the tidal wave of images and emotions that wash over every sentient and sentimental viewer, in much the same way that the waves in the opening sequence had washed over the galley prisoners.

At the end of the day . . . I love the film and the care that the creators and artists have done in curating a treasure.  I will see it again, and will probably end up owning the DVD.  I still cannot wait to see it again - on stage.  There is something about live theater that cannot be captured or duplicated on the screen, not even by the most carefully crafted film. This is a subjective matter of personal taste.  It is surf and turf - steak and lobster.  Both are delicious and nutritious.  But, I prefer the extra sizzle that comes from a live stage version elegantly presented and served piping hot!

Enjoy the film, and catch the 25th Anniversary production when it comes near to your town.  Coming up in the next few months - Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Kalamazoo, Cleveland, Charlotte, Charleston, Miami, Sarasota, Fort Myers, Richmond, Worcester, Baltimore, New Haven, Norfolk, Schenectady,Rochester, Columbus, Denver, et al.  This stage version will also return to Broadway during the 2014 season.

"To love another person is to see the face of God."




Unknown said...


I thought it was wonderful! I sat mesmerized from the beginning to the end. And that quote!! Tears spilled from my eyes. I, too will see it again and purchase the DVD. Great blog! Articulate as ever!


Mark said...


I appreciate your review so much.

I'm such a huge fan of Colm Wilkinson as Valjean, Philip Quast as Javert, and in my eyes (or ears), Lea Salonga can do no wrong. And can there be a Master of the House other than Alun Armstrong?

But I look forward to seeing this new version with great interest. It will likely be in my living room via Redbox. I'll do my best to watch it with an open mind. I think Anne Hathaway is great. Maybe she'll top her performance as Catwoman! :)

But it's kinda hard to watch your favorites be replaced. (In my view the guy from the Jonas Brothers didn't get the job done in the 25th Anniversary concert.) But maybe this new cast will surprise me. I'd like that!