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Les Misérables: Do You Hear the Movie Stars Sing?

December 29, 2012

Greetings CBC readers!

I have been inactive a long time now, for noble reasons I assure you. I’ve started graduate school and that has kept me busy for the past four months since my last entry. But I thank you all for sticking with me, and I simply HAD to come out of the woodwork to discuss the holiday season’s biggest film; something theater nerds, musical lovers, and cinephiles are talking about with varying opinions all over:

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When the announcement was made that they would turn this over 25-year-old, Tony Award winning, epic musical into a feature film, one opinion among fans of the musical was unanimous: casting would be key. How little we knew that would only be one part of the process, and how little we thought of whether or not this musical SHOULD be made into a feature film.

I myself was dubious, especially when I heard that they would be performing the songs completely live, instead of pre-recording them in a studio. Those cast, Anne Hathaway, Russell Crowe, etc. were not stage-worthy singers. How could they sing these epic songs live without the aid of a swelling orchestra or technological advancements of the recording industry? Then, I saw this little featurette, and I thought that it had changed my mind. The fact that they were singing live, and filming it the way that they were, seemed much more conducive to the medium of film. Instead of being grand and pretty, the film would be gritty and real, and for a while, that premise excited me. However, I realize now that the musical itself is not conducive to the medium of film. The musical itself is much more suited for the stage. There were times when the orchestrations were so faint, that I missed much of the famous musical themes. These songs need to be SUNG, not whispered, not held back, not made smaller because the camera is right in your face. I think, ultimately, that’s where this film fails. But regardless of it necessarily not being suited for film, the movie on the whole is pretty good, though not great. As my playwright friend Jennifer Lane stated, Les Mis the film was, “A valiant attempt to be as good as live theatre. It is not, however, as good as live theatre.”

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The first 30 minutes or so of the film were its best. When the opening chords of “Look Down” began, the camera flying over an enormous ship, the small prisoners visible in the crashing waves, my jaw dropped over the grandiosity of the scene. Here was where film outshone theater; offering a grand visual we could never have on the stage created for us on a big screen. (I did miss the actual melody of the prisoners’ “Ah-UH, Ah-UH” that opens that song. Instead we were given simply rhythmic grunting). My eyes widened again just after “Valjean’s Soliloquy” where he ripped apart his convict papers and threw them out over a cliff across the French countryside. The opening chords of that gorgeous transition to “At the End of the Day” began and I was officially swept up and ready to dive into the meat of the show (er…film).  I didn’t even mind the overly illustrated CGI of those moments. They had a kind of Baz Luhrmann’s Australia thing going on, but I thought they were quite beautiful.

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After the eight-year transition, we finally meet Anne Hathaway’s Fantine. I’ve always enjoyed Hathaway’s past work; everything from The Princess Diaries to The Devil Wears Prada to Rachel Getting Married. However, I had honestly gotten quite annoyed at Ms. Hathaway’s slow burn style of introducing her singing to the masses, beginning with her seemingly impromptu performance with host and future co-star Hugh Jackman at the Oscars a few years back. Then there was her singing bit honoring Meryl Streep on last year’s Kennedy Center Honors. Then there was the singing at her own dismal Oscar hosting gig. Then there was her singing on SNL. It was some sort of tiring, repeated audition, almost as if she was saying, “Do you like it? You do? Should I do it some more?” I kind of wish she had just jumped into this or another musical film without all of the pre-emptive singing (kind of what Amanda Seyfried did with Mama Mia). That said, Ms. Hathaway was utterly brilliant in this role. Her singing was fine, perfectly passable, not amazing. It was her acting however that blew “I Dreamed a Dream” out of the water.  (Also, the change of moving this song to after “Lovely Ladies” made perfect sense). She was seriously heartbreaking and captured a side of Fantine that I don’t think anyone had ever looked for or anticipated. Director Tom Hooper’s decision to shoot the entire song in one long take was jarring at first, but once we were there, I didn’t want him to cut away, and staying with Fantine’s desperate face was all the more moving.

Unfortunately I think that’s where Hooper’s odd usage of close ups, short focal lengths, and un-focused camera work should have ended, but more on the cinematography later.

Moving on to the rest of the cast: I had high hopes for Hugh Jackman, and knew well of his musical theatre background. I thought his performance was well done, though I thought at times he made some strange nasally sounds, and that some of the songs were way north of his comfortable register, especially some of the moments during the pivotal “Bring Him Home”. Though, I think his acting was great and he suited the character well.

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The Thénardiers were perfectly cast with Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter, though I think in the attempt to make the film grittier and real, much of the fun these two usually provide was lost, and the humorous “Master of the House” became a bit dull.

Amanda Seyfried as Cosette was perfectly adequate and she had a lovely high voice, though her intense vibrato was at times grating. Eddie Redmayne was a charming Marius and together the pair made suitably pretty, sweet young couple.

The casting of Eponine was a closely followed process, especially by Gen Y/Millennials like myself who sang her parts in the shower throughout the 90s. Rumors and reports blanketed the blogosphere. At one point Taylor Swift was rumored cast as the heartbroken and tragic third-wheel. (Thank goodness that didn’t happen). Instead the role went to British reality star Samantha Barks, who had been playing the role on stage and who was quite wonderful in the 25th Anniversary concert that everyone (me) has been watching on PBS for the past two years. Her casting earned a collective sigh of relief from Eponine fans who were thankful that they cast an actual singer in the role.

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Now, while they successfully cast someone who could actually sing the part, Hooper and the scriptwriting team significantly diminished her character. Changes like cutting verses out of “Attack on Rue Plumet” and “A Little Fall of Rain”, were unfortunate and made her seem less important to Marius, when she was anything but. To rub salt in the wound, they even cut Marius’ reference to her in “Beggars at the Feast” when he insinuates that the Thénardiers cared nothing for their daughter and that she brought him to Cosette. And even that was vague, since they changed some of her significant actions in the show to the charming cherub Gavroche. The popular song and fan favorite “On My Own” was moved to right before the show stopper “One Day More”, when in the show it is one of the highlights of the second act. This gave Eponine’s character less time to develop, and the song had less time to shine. I even feel that poor Samantha Barks was instructed to hold back on her singing (she definitely has more power in her) lest she outshine the star and potential Oscar winner Ms. Hathaway. Slate writer Rachael Maddux adequately explains the hold that this musical has had over my generation for many years, connecting the hook of the love triangle to extreme teen angst: “Reports of kids weeping the first time they saw the show live are not uncommon, and it’s usually the fault of “On My Own.”” The kicker, for me, was removing Eponine from “Valjean’s Death/Finale”. True, it never really made sense that she was there. However, the parallels between Fantine and Eponine cannot be ignored. They both do everything they can for happiness that they will never possess and end up dying for those that they love. Their harmonies together during that closing number are some of the most beautiful and emotionally wrought in the entire show. I’m totally fine with the unusual addition of the Bishop (brilliantly played by original Jean Valjean, Colm Wilkinson) but the removal of Eponine? Bad move, Hooper. Bad Move.

Les-Miserables-Russell-CroweAnother highly discussed casting choice was Russell Crowe in the role of “villain” Javert. I for one immediately thought that Crowe would suit the character of the straight spined, law obsessed corrections officer turned police chief. The problem was that his singing experience is one of a rock background, having been the lead singer of the band 30 Odd Foot of Grunts. Could he do justice to one of the most beloved characters in all of musical theater? The answer is mixed. I thought Crowe acted the part wonderfully and had some great character moments throughout the film, especially when he pinned his medal on Gavroche’s tiny dead body. Unfortunately, “Stars”, the characters most famous song, was not one of those great moments. While I think he did satisfactorily with the recitative parts and the rest of the show, “Stars” is the moment where this role needs a truly amazing singer (say for example Norm Lewis or Phillip Quast) and Crowe unfortunately could not cut it. Yes he was on key and hit the notes, but there was no power behind them. (Also, dude behind me in the theater singing along, you cannot cut it either, so please shut up). To give Crowe a little credit, I also thought that entire number was poorly shot. The camera swooped around as if on a roller coaster, almost trying to distract the audience from Crowe’s mediocre singing voice. If Hooper really wanted to focus on the method of making every song more introspective and down to earth, what he should have done is this: Take advantage of Crowe’s poor singing voice and have him sing this song even softer and more reflectively. Have him inside, perhaps in a chapel, staring out a window at the stars instead of outside on a grand ledge. Perhaps kneeling in prayer as a nice mirror image of Valjean’s earlier soliloquy. I think a scene like that would have added much more to the character and Crowe’s weak voice might have worked.

The film on the whole made me, as my friends and I like to say, “have the feels” and the tears, but not to the extreme that I usually experience while watching the stage production. For instance, the young student revolutionaries came across like a small rabble of punks, with a poor plan and little clout. This, of course, is more historically accurate.  I often forget that the play depicts the June Rebellion of 1832 and not the actual French Revolution. Yet, the stage production made the whole incident feel grander, more important, and that the stakes were higher. I suppose to gain historical accuracy, grandiose and swelling scenes had to be sacrificed. I can get behind that. I did think that moving “Do You Hear The People Sing” to after “One Day More” was a brilliant move, and the whole environment of the funeral procession and the crowds gathering to sing that song was gorgeously done.

Other movements and cuts did not work so well for me (I’ve already discussed my disappointment in the movement of “On My Own”). I realize that cuts had to be made, though sadly, the story suffered because of them. You could tell that the filmmakers were desperately trying to keep the film as close to 2.5 hours as possible. But a lot of the cuts, especially in the later half of the film, took away from the characters’ development. The transitions seemed hasty, and songs weren’t given a moment to settle before we were rushed off to the next scene or the next song. That might be a byproduct of being used to the stage production, though I genuinely felt like a lot of the second half was hurried. If anything, I would have ADDED a few bits, for example the song I Saw Him Once that usually starts the Love Montage (which was a Cosette number that was cut from the original London production before the Broadway production) which gives the love-at-first-sight story line between Marius and Cosette a little more heft.

Though, I’d have to say that what bothered me most about the film was the cinematography. I had prior warning Hooper’s extreme close-ups and was prepared, though I did eventually get tired of them. I think the use was brilliant during “I Dreamed a Dream”, but after that, with almost every song shot at an extreme close-up, I was begging for a medium shot, an establishing shot, anything but the Blair Witch Project up the nose shot. There was a moment when Eddie Redmayne, beautifully singing “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables” (though no one can compare to Michael Ball) turned his face to the camera at such a close proximity that I actually recoiled; afraid his red nose and what was dripping out of it would come hurling out of the screen.

Hooper and cinematographer Danny Cohen used an extremely narrow focal length to enhance the drama and closeness to his singing subjects, the problem then was every time the actors moved even the slightest bit, they shifted in and out of focus. The lighting was also distracting at points. There was a good length of time when Hugh Jackman was singing “Valjean’s Soliloquy” in complete shadow, and not an intentional shadow that added to the environment, but an unfortunate looking, accidental darkness. The excessive Dutch angles combined with the excessive close-ups was too much at more than a few points, particularly during “Beggers at the Feast”, when the Thénardiers were carried out of the wedding. With one shot up Sacha Baron Cohen’s crotch, and another showing just the top of Helena Bonham Carter’s head (and both extremely close) as the two tried to sing important plot points was just awful. And why was Helena Bonham carter wearing sunglasses?!

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Ya know what though? Despite my nitpicking, I did enjoy the film. I didn’t LOVE it like I do the show, but I do appreciate the attempt to bring a live theatrical experience to film and make it as close to the source material as possible. Like other Les Mis fans, there was probably no world in which I was going to hate this film, as I love the source material too much. Ultimately, I don’t think Hooper’s vision of toning down the music for a more intimate experience wasn’t a great choice for this particular piece, and that while fans of musical theatre often beg and plead for film versions of their favorite shows, perhaps they’re not always a good idea.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. July 13, 2013 1:23 pm

    Yes! Finally someone writes about mia movies.

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  1. Movie Rundown: Holiday Favorites and Oscar Hopefuls « Critic Behind the Curtain

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