I’m obsessed with Les Misérables. I had no experience with the story in any form until this past Friday, when I saw the new movie by Tom Hooper. Since then, I’ve seen the film again, Youtubed live performances, listened to various cast recordings on Spotify, and read about various differences between novel, stage musical and film.
I would not have gotten into the whole Les Mis thing if not for the movie. That doesn’t mean that the movie is amazing or anything, nor that it should be fully credited for my new-found fascination.
The Les Mis story is like the most beautiful thing ever. It’s about redemption, self-sacrifice, love, romance, morality, the harshness of life and the hope for tomorrow, garnished with comic relief and action. The more I think about the story, the more I love it.
The other major strong point is the songs, obviously. The melodies are catchy and powerful, and the lyrics have hidden complexities beneath the simple surface of their words. There are heart-breakers like “I Dream a Dream” and “A Little Fall of Rain”, powerful songs of soul-searching like “Valjean’s Soliloquy”, the funny “Master of the House”, the dramatic “Confrontation”, the morale-raising “Do You Hear the People Sing”, the awesome “One Day More”, and tons more. I won’t say it’s all great stuff, but it’s not too far off, and it all gels together perfectly.
Neither the story nor the songs were created by the people who made the movie. The songs I have now experienced in other – generally superior – versions. The story itself I’ve still only taken in through Hooper’s vision.
Do I love the movie? I don’t know. I reckon I’ll always be thankful to it for introducing me to the whole Les Mis thing, but there are certainly things I don’t like about it very much. Russell Crowe has the physical presence required, but he does not have the singing voice to pull off the antagonist Javert character, with both his big solo numbers in the film coming off really flat and unmemorable. Comic relief duo Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter bring the funny for sure, but both have a tendency to mumble and Carter seems to mostly be reprising her Mrs. Lovett character from Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. The new song “Suddenly” which was written specifically for the film version is the dullest of the whole movie and despite being brief still grinds the movie to a halt.
Overall, however, the film is a major success. Hooper’s decision to have the singing done live on set is not as revolutionary as has been suggested – Across the Universe did the same thing back in 2007, for instance – but it does work wonders here in allowing more free form performances. “Valjean’s Soliloquy” is a great example, with Hugh Jackman pacing back and forth, into and out of light, battling with doubt with it the struggle clearly present in his face and his voice. It seems unlikely that lip-syncing to prerecorded singing would have the same effect. The other much debated style decision by Hooper is to use close-ups for many of the song numbers. Some call this suffocating; I call this intimate and effective. It’s not like it’s everywhere, as some suggest. Mostly, it’s kept to the more personal songs. There is a tune or two where a wider scope would have been preferrable, but as a whole, Hooper did a fine job here. He had a clear vision, and he followed through with it. Les Misérables is a stronger film overall than The King’s Speech, and certainly directing-wise.
Apart from the actors already I’ve already criticized, the cast ranges from good to great. The two clear standouts are Jackman and Anne Hathaway. The former pulls off a career-best transformative performance as Valjean, having me fully invested in the character’s journey while never making me think “Oh, it’s Wolverine singing.” Hathaway, of course, has the best scene of the film – and most likely of all of 2012 – with her performance of “I Dreamed a Dream”. The first time I saw the film, I was stunned and had goosebumps alll the way through her song. It’s such a heart-wrencher. She sings very well indeed, but even more impressive is the sheer power-acting involved. Her Fantine is truly a woman broken by all that life has thrown at her, and it’s expressed devastatingly here. It’s a major tear jerker. On my rewatch, I kind of steeled myself against it a bit, thinking I knew what I was in for. Then that penultimate verse hits, where Fantine first sings how she hopes her love will come back to her, but then she goes “But there are dreams that can not be”, and Hathaway throws her head back a bit and there’s a tear racing down her cheek, and fuck! Raw, powerful, amazing, and heart-breaking.
But this wasn’t meant to be a review of the film. The point I want to make is that while the movie is very good, my love for it is smaller than my love for Les Mis as a whole. Or so I assume. What is it that I like better, really? I haven’t seen any full stage performance in person – though I now desperately want to – and what clips I’ve seen on Youtube are just singled out songs. The albums I’ve listened to are great, but is an album better than a film? It’s apples and oranges, no?
I can’t seem to find enough of an outlet for this new-found obsession. The film isn’t the kind of thing I can call all my friends and tell them that they just have to go see it. It’s not a film that can be discussed that much on an analytical level. I could read the novel, but past experiences have told me that me and old books don’t mix well. There are no live performances of the musical anywhere near here. I can – and will – listen to the songs again and again, but this is not enough, I fear. I feel like I’ve tweeted about Les Mis more than I should have already, and yet it’s all I can think of. My head is full of Valjeans and Fantines and Eponines and Thénardiers, all swimming around in an intermixing ocean of songs. I’m overwhelmed by it all.
Les Misérables is not the best movie of 2012. It’s no The Grey. It’s no Life of Pi. I’m not sure it’s even a The Dark Knight Rises or The Avengers. And yet it has done something that no other film from last year has been able to.
For better or for worse.