Les Misérables (2012)
While I haven’t personally seen a live production of the famous musical, I have been listening to the music religiously since it was introduced to me about six years ago. My brother-in-law to-be is the one who gave me the songs, and from the first time they played, I liked what I heard. At that time I had only a vague idea of what Les Mis is about, the story and the characters. I didn’t have a visual for any of them until I saw him and my fiancé (or betrothed, as we’ve decided to use instead because we’re both quite sick of saying fiancé/fiancée) playing a flash fighting game that featured the characters. They were Street Fighter style animations, but I finally had some kind of image for the characters when I heard them singing. Then someone, I forget who, showed me video clips from the 10th Anniversary Concert in London, and that is when I really fell head over heels in love; mostly with Fontaine (because I love Ruthie Henshall’s voice to pieces) and with Colm Wilkinson as Valjean. Then I got wind of the movie they were making that would be released in theaters on Christmas of 2012. I was so excited, I played Les Mis music in the living room, in the car, and everywhere I could in anticipation. Well, I finally saw the movie.
And I was so very disappointed. Let me see if I can organize my thoughts to properly express my disappointment.
First of all, who thought it was a good idea to cast Russell Crowe as Javert? Please come forward so you can be flogged. I knew this wouldn’t work out from the minute I saw his name in the credits. Crowe is a great actor when it comes to roles like Maximum Decimus Meridius or John Nash, but not this. Javert was not his cup of tea, and he is so obviously not right for the role that someone should have caught it before, or at worst case during production. However, it looked like no one was willing to come forward and say something about what a terrible Javert he made, so we were left listening to a monotonous voice that—though it didn’t suck—was all wrong for the part, and watching a completely wooden performance utterly devoid of any emotion. For goodness sake, give something, Crowe! Javert as a character is not a statue and he doesn’t speak just to get the lines out. He’s a passionate French cop whose blind devotion to the law and the legal idea of justice drives him to spend years of his life hunting down a single man. His pride is so overbearing that he believes he is better than those below him—which is almost everyone. And he believes in the law so strongly that he never doubts it once, because it was written by men greater than him so who is he—or anyone else, for that matter—to question it? He’s one of the most passionate, snappy characters in the entire story, and yet Crowe stands there like stiff as a board, singing his part like a middle school understudy. Shame on everyone who had the power to do something and yet allowed that to happen.
Secondly, why was Hugh Jackman cast as Jean Valjean? Jackman is a very versatile actor. He can do action, comedy, drama, live stage shows, singing, etc. He’s a gem. But this was not his shining moment. In the story, Jean Valjean is an old man (by revolutionary France standards) before he is released from jail after 19 years incarceration. Then he almost immediately violates his parole and becomes a successful mayor for 8 years, until he blows his cover by saving an innocent man from being mistakenly identified as him, the parole violator. Then he raises Cossette in the woods for 9 years until the failed revolution comes about. So, by the end of the play Valjean is somewhere between 60-80 years old. Jackman is not 60 years old, nor does he look 60 years old for any of the movie. He is not old enough for the role, which was a problem to me when I was watching the trailers, but I figured what the hell, maybe they know something I don’t. No, I found out, they really don’t. Jackman was way too young, and his voice was way too young and high pitched. It just did not sound like Valjean at all. Every time he went to sing I kept waiting to be blown away, waiting for some semblance of what should have been, so I could pretend that the rest of it was worth it. But it didn’t happen. Please understand, I think Jackman is a great actor and showman. He has a talent for pulling off just about anything. But this really didn’t work for me at all.
Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen as the Thénardiers was eh. They’re not new roles for either of them, really, and this was played much like they do almost everything else. She was sarcastic and dark and he was plucky. End of story. Show us something new please, guys! Just because it’s the same type of role doesn’t mean you have to play it the same way every time!
The visuals were stunning. You could see 18th century France in every building, every costume. There was nothing forgotten, even down to the teeth, the boils, and the sewers and aqueducts. It was a visual feast for the eyes. Almost as if we were watching a piece of time played before us.
But the cinematography didn’t work. Part of why it didn’t work is due to the ridiculous close-ups that were used during the songs. There were so many, and they lasted so painfully long that it was awkward and not all enjoyable. I know the reason for this is mostly due to the fact that they chose to use live sound recording for the voices instead of lip-syncing to pre-recorded songs, and that’s nice. But those held close-ups were just uncomfortable. And the way some of the actors didn’t move much at all during the songs just made it worse. When Jackman sings What Have I Done? in the chapel after robbing the Bishop and then being saved by him, there was no real confliction in what I saw. Sure his voice kind of gave a hint that he was upset, but it wasn’t conflict or shame. He mostly sounded whiney, and I think part of the reason for that is the lack of physical motion. Some pacing side to side, or a couple shots from another direction maybe could have helped? Not the long walks front to back of the chapel that looked more like work than entertaining. And when Crowe sings Javert’s suicide—you know what, I’m not going to bother because we all know how I feel about his performance at this point.
Actually, that brings me to another point. For this musical production they decided to try something different than what’s been done in the past. They chose to have all the actors sing live on set in time with a piano playing off set and sent to them through earpieces. The live sound is what they used in the mixing. To me this seemed like an experiment for live music sound, and the result is proof of why we don’t do it normally. The usual routine for musicals is to pre-record the singing a few months ahead of time and then play it back for them to lip-sync to on set. Doing it this way makes it easier for the editor to cut the scene, and easier for the sound editor to sync up the lips with the audio. By using the live sound the editor was no doubt forced to use those painfully long close-ups because it was easiest way to keep everything in sync without ruining the quality of the live audio. Plus, the voices are so up front and personal that you can’t hear the orchestra well enough in the background. The orchestra is just as, if not more important than the voices because that’s what gives each song its mojo.
What did work for me was Anne Hathaway as Fontaine. Fantastic! Phenomenal! I honestly didn’t feel a thing for the entire intro to this movie until Fatine started singing. Amidst a sea of dull, badly cast performances she was an island of raw emotion that cut through the monotony created by Jackman and Crowe. Her voice has power, and she sang her part with all the feeling that Fontaine is supposed to! You felt her sorrow, her disappointment in her life in every verse she sang. And you could see her pain in her expressions. I didn’t even mind the extended close-up during her rendition of I Dreamed a Dream. She is probably one of, if not my favorite Fatine to date.
Other performances that also worked were those done by the women (minus Carter). Bravo ladies. And by cast members who are normally Broadway performers (minus Jackman). They truly knew how to sing with emotion. I can’t believe I’m going to say this, but because of them I actually liked the second half more than the first. I also can’t believe I’m going to say I didn’t mind listening to Marius’s voice (Eddie Redmayne) because for once it didn’t come across like a bemoaning boy-child. Empty Chairs at Empty Tables was one of my favorite pieces in the whole thing.
I also liked the chorus pieces, but that’s probably because those were sung like songs and not sing-talking. Operas are beautiful. I’m all for song-driven movies and I like movies that don’t have singing, but please pick one and stick with it. Don’t speak half the line and then sing the other half. It was meant to add to the performance by giving it an extra dose of emotion, but it didn’t work and there’s a reason why. That’s not natural. No one sings half of what they say and then speaks the other half, and when you try to it comes across as half-assed and awkward.
Overall, if I were the kind of person who liked rating things, I’d give this a 2 out of 5. It’s the kind of thing that I’d watch on TV if there was nothing else on, but I wouldn’t pay for it. I doubt I’ll be buying the DVD whenever that comes out, but I might actually get the soundtrack. Anne Hathaway’s voice is totally worth it, in my opinion.