Today’s cinema adventure: Les Misérables, the 2012 film adaptation of the hit stage musical by Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg, based in turn on the classic 1862 Victor Hugo novel of the same name. Affectionately referred to as “Les Miz” by many of its legion of fans, the show had one of the longest runs in both London and Broadway history, as well as hundreds of international and touring productions, and continues to be a major draw in theaters around the world to this day; needless to say, the blockbuster film version, in development (off-and-on) for nearly 25 years, had a sizable built-in audience awaiting its debut on Christmas Day. Directed by Tom Hooper, who was at the helm of 2010’s Oscar-winner, The King’s Speech, and produced with heavy involvement from the show’s original creators, including producer Cameron Mackintosh, it has opened to mostly positive reviews, already scored multiple nominations and wins among the various year-end film awards, and been greeted -if the crowded audience I saw it with was any clear indication- with wildly enthusiastic response from the public.
Adapted for the screen by William Nicholson, the floridly romantic score by Boublil and Schönberg (with English lyrics translated by Herbert Kretzmer) makes it to the screen remarkably intact, a rarity in Hollywood transpositions of stage musicals, with very few passages removed and a minimum of strategic re-ordering; consequently, as with the original production, almost the entire story is told through singing, with only a smattering of spoken dialogue. The epic tale begins, as does the novel, in 1815 France, a country that has reverted to despotic monarchy only a few short years after its bloody revolution deposed the reigning aristocracy. We are introduced to two men: Jean Valjean, a hardened convict who is being paroled after spending 19 years on a chain gang for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his starving family; and Javert, the strict and stalwart policeman who oversees their labor. Upon Valjean’s release, his status as a paroled felon prevents him from finding work or shelter, and the cruelty and humiliation he suffers reinforce his hatred and mistrust of humanity, until an act of kindness by an elderly bishop inspires him to transform his life and dedicate himself to God. He knows he cannot live under the draconian terms of his parole, however, and so he tears up his papers, vowing to begin a new life. The story then shifts 8 years into the future, when Valjean has established himself under a new identity as a successful factory owner and is now the mayor of Montreuil-sur-Mer, a small seaport city. One of his workers, a young woman named Fantine, is dismissed by the foreman when it is discovered that she is an unwed mother; with no job, she is unable to send support for her child- a little girl named Cosette who is in the care of a tavern-keeper and his wife in a nearby town- and she soon discovers her only avenue is to join the ranks of the town’s prostitutes. Meanwhile, Valjean is made uneasy by the arrival of the town’s new police inspector- none other than Javert himself, whose suspicions are aroused by the mayor’s familiar appearance. When Fantine, now gravely ill, is arrested in an altercation with an abusive “customer,” Valjean intervenes, and promises his dying former employee that he will take care of the child she leaves behind; but when he learns that another man has been mistaken for him and arrested in his name, he knows he cannot secure his own freedom at the expense of an innocent soul. He reveals his identity to the court, then evades Javert in order to rescue little Cosette from her cruel guardians and flee with her to Paris, where he disappears into yet another life- this time as a loving and protective father. Another 9 years go by; Valjean and the now-grown Cosette live in comfortable but secluded anonymity, and Javert now patrols the streets of Paris, where poverty and social injustice have bred a new generation of revolutionaries- a band of students under the leadership of the charismatic Enjolras. One of their number, Marius, becomes smitten with Cosette when they see each other in the street; but their budding romance is interrupted by fate, as her former foster parents, the scheming Thénardiers (now also living in Paris, with their real daughter, Eponine), have recognized Valjean, prompting the longtime fugitive to plan an escape to England with his beloved ward. On the eve of their departure, the student rebellion begins, throwing Paris into turmoil and bringing the destinies of the characters together for a climactic confrontation that will determine all of their fates forever.
In the original stage version of the musical, numerous liberties were taken with Hugo’s original novel, in the interest of simplifying the complex narrative and restructuring it for the needs of theatrical presentation; even so, through clever staging and production design, the epic sweep of the original was captured and maintained in a way that helped to redefine and reassert the musical theater art form for a new generation. In re-expanding the story from the confines of the stage to the endless possibilities of the cinematic format, screenwriter Nicholson and director Hooper have returned to the source material for inspiration in filling in the background details, which successfully fleshes out the saga with the epic stature it deserves, but they have faithfully maintained the plot structure of Boublil and Schönberg’s version. Part of this may be because of the involvement of Mackintosh, whose insistence on keeping the integrity of the show has been a factor throughout its history, and also because any significant changes would doubtless awaken the wrath of the musical’s sizable army of devoted followers, thereby alienating the lion’s share of their target audience. Whatever the reason behind it, the decision to present the musical largely as written has resulted, perhaps ironically, in a brave and groundbreaking piece of filmmaking; since the decline of the film musical as a viable box office draw in the late 1960s, and particularly since the undeniably brilliant screen version of Cabaret directed by Bob Fosse in 1972, Hollywood has had a fear of allowing the conceits of the genre to be manifested onscreen. To put it simply, the idea of characters breaking out into song and dance in order to express themselves fell from fashion with the rise of a jaded generation raised on contemporary realism; the “hokiness” of musicals was rejected by an audience that associated it with the values of their parents’ era, and filmmakers have since been reluctant to put them on the big screen without justifying the song-and-dance elements by the use of some stylized approach- usually separating them from the narrative by treating them as fantasy or by presenting them as staged performances within the world of the film. There have been few movie musicals over the course of the last two or three decades, and with few exceptions they have largely been lackluster efforts which have failed to score with either critics or audiences. In recent years, however, the popularity of the Broadway musical has undergone a sort of revival in the popular imagination, and the comparative success of such stage-to-film transitions as Hairspray and Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street has given tentative indication that audience acceptance for such fare is growing in movie houses, as well. With Les Misérables, Hollywood takes the bold step of returning to the traditional approach, at last permitting the musical score to be performed, without qualification or apology, as the primary medium through which the story is told. Unlike Hairspray, with its kitshy camp sensibilty, or Sweeney Todd, with its dark, cartoonish stylization, Les Misérables is grounded in a gritty period realism, and yet its characters express not only their inner monologues through song, they converse, confront and comfort each other through it as well. In today’s cinema, such a basic, play-as-written approach to such material seems a novel concept, and it is precisely for this reason that it breaks free of its theatrical roots and comes to life as pure cinema.
To be sure, it takes a little adjusting for audiences unused to the genre, and even for those familiar with it. The spectacular opening sequence, in which scores of rough-edged prisoners drag the enormous wrecked hull of a sunken ship while they sing of the cruelty and hopelessness of their existence, thrusts us immediately into the film’s operatic milieu, without fanfare or warning; it’s a jarring, alien experience, at first, but the utter conviction with which it is performed and presented soon carry us into acceptance, and by the time the story comes to its final fruition 150-odd minutes later the cumulative power of the score rewards us with an emotional catharsis rarely achieved by standard, non-musical methods. That is, it rewards those who are able to surrender to it; there are undeniably viewers who simply don’t like musicals, and no amount of discussion about the aesthetics or traditions of the genre is likely to persuade them to open their minds to Les Misérables. Make no mistake, this is a hardcore musical, and anyone who has trouble suspending their disbelief in a world where thieves, prostitutes and soldiers sing in unison would be well-advised to steer clear. At the risk of seeming confrontational, I might also say they would be well-advised not to try and spoil it for the rest of us.
Of course, there are also those who, as die-hard fans of the musical, will be coming into the theater with their own high standards and expectations about the piece; “Les Miz” aficionados generally have their favorite recordings of the show, with every vocal and instrumental nuance memorized by heart, or perhaps envision a “dream cast” in which their favorite performers from the various productions might somehow be united into one perfect rendition if the show. These viewers are likely to be disappointed in what they see (and hear) here, as, indeed, they would be bound to be with any version of the piece short of the one they have in their imagination. In fact, it’s probably fair to say that anyone who is a stickler for “legit” singing will probably have difficulty accepting the vocal performances in Les Misérables; though its cast is composed primarily of actors who are trained and experienced singers, the film’s highly unusual approach to capturing their vocals has yielded a different sound than might be anticipated. In order to focus on the immediacy and spontaneity of the scenes- particularly since virtually the entire film is sung- the decision was made to forego the usual technique of pre-recording all the songs and lip-syncing to a playback on the set during filming. Instead, the actors sang everything live on camera, with a piano providing accompaniment through concealed earpieces and the full orchestral underscore being added in post-production. The result of this approach is a raw, improvisational quality- decidedly different from the meticulously phrased, measured delivery found on most musical theater recordings- that gives the songs an unpredictable, electric vitality; it is not the first time such a tactic has been employed, but it is certainly the most extensive use of it to date, and though it may not satisfy the ears of purists, it creates a hitherto unseen level of honesty in the performances, with each actor given the opportunity to fully express emotional reality in the moment without being hindered by a forced layer of artificiality. This is not to say that the vocals are in any way inadequate- on the contrary, the cast of Les Misérables is more than capable of the meeting the demands of the material- but rather that they do not adhere to expectations; there is understatement where there is usually bombast and vice versa, and tempos are stretched or tightened according to interpretive need (all dictated, incidentally, by the actors themselves), giving the familiar score a freshness and an urgency that would have been impossible had the performers merely attempted to recreate the sound of those who have gone before.
To execute these performances, Hooper has assembled an ensemble of prestigious actors that, though they may not constitute a typical “Les Miz dream cast,” certainly lay claim to their iconic roles and bring them to life with a clear and infectious relish. Heading this gallery of versatile “A-listers” is Hugh Jackman as Valjean, finally given the chance to bring to the screen the skills that made him a star on the musical stage before his days as an action-adventure star. Those who know him only as Wolverine may well be surprised by his magnificent performance here; his renditions of Valjean’s signature songs display his prodigious musical talent and his clear, soaring tenor voice while bringing a depth and emotional immediacy that make them completely his own, and he charts this archetypal character’s journey from hardened thug to selfless benefactor with a brave and powerful range, finding surprising nuances of strength and vulnerability that continually remind us of his humanity. As Javert, Russell Crowe is perhaps less noticeably effective, due to his stoic, seemingly emotionless presence as this ultimate champion of the letter of the law; his singing is metered and free of all but the sparsest of ornamentation, and he avoids playing into potentially passionate moments with the rigorous restraint of an ascetic. For some, this approach to the character may seem like a missed opportunity, but in fact it is a remarkably honest interpretation, faithful to Hugo’s original portrayal, of a character whose life is devoted to a code which permits no room for personal choice; Javert does his duty, nothing more, and Crowe is to be commended for resisting the temptation to add showy flourishes. Anne Hathaway, as the tragic Fantine, delivers the film’s standout performance, a heartbreaking portrait of a young woman driven to desperation by the cruel oppression of her time, and her stunning performance of the musical’s best-known song, “I Dreamed a Dream,” is destined to go down in cinema history as one of those great, unforgettable scenes that shows up in montages paying tribute to classic moments from the movies. As the Thénardiers, Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter provide double-edged comic relief in roles that could probably be described as the “Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter” characters- which may sound like a bit of a dig, but in fact it is a testament to their skill at portraying these kinds of audaciously unpleasant types. They seem absolutely right as this pair of opportunistic reprobates, and it is hard to imagine anyone else playing them. As Marius, the immensely gifted Eddie Redmayne truly shines, taking this crucial character and making him a likable, genuine young man with a passionate soul, and not just another handsome romantic juvenile; his own belief in his “love at first sight” is so sincere, we are swept up in it easily- and not just because we accept the convention as a necessary part of the story-, and later in the film, his rendition of “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables, a mournful elegy to his fallen companions and an expression of his own post-traumatic-shock demons, is riveting and heart-rendingly real. As Cosette, Amanda Seyfried is likewise believably dimensional, rising above the level of mere ingénue, and though her character gives her less chance to stand out, she invests it with so much charm and life that it seems she has a much bigger role than she really does. Samantha Barks, one of the two principal cast members to have previously played their role onstage, gives a sweet and sad performance as Eponine, capturing the simultaneous joy and despair of her own signature number, “On My Own,” without the affectation that its heart-tugging mixture of despair and joy might inspire in a lesser performer. Broadway actor Aaron Tveit makes a compelling Enjolras, brandishing a powerfully eloquent singing voice and a piercing intensity that perfectly embodies the enigmatic young revolutionary and makes him utterly convincing as a figure that might inspire other young men to follow him to their deaths; young Daniel Huttlestone (the other “Les Miz” stage veteran) easily wins our affections as the scrappy Gavroche, giving us just enough of the “precocious urchin” persona to make him familiar without adding the sentimentality that would turn him into a cliche; similarly, Isabelle Allen plays the young Cosette without cloying cuteness, delivering her song, “Castle on a Cloud,” with endearing honesty and refreshing simplicity. Indeed, every member of the cast, from the cadre of student rebels to the gaggle of gossipy factory women, does stellar work and provides a memorable contribution to the whole, making Les Misérables feel like a true ensemble effort. Lastly, in a fitting touch that adds a certain intangible resonance to the proceedings, Colm Wilkinson, the Irish folk-singer-turned-actor who became an international star when he originated the role of Valjean in both the London and Broadway productions, makes a cameo appearance, giving an all-too-brief, transcendent performance as the Bishop of Digne, whose act of kindness sets Valjean on the path to redemption. It’s also worth a mention that many of the film’s extras and “chorus” members are also alumni of stage productions of the show, including original Eponine Frances Ruffelle, who plays a fairly sizable role as a prostitute. Their involvement is a testament to the powerful spell of the show, which engenders a lasting bond and loyalty among those who have participated in it and consider themselves all to be part of a family- a family which has every reason to be proud of its newest members, who have joined their ranks through this film.
With such a collection of fine performances on display, it is only right that the film should deliver an equally impressive production to showcase them; thanks to the efforts of Tom Hooper and his creative staff, it does better than that. Les Misérables goes beyond the perfunctory spectacle provided by its painstaking recreation of 19th Century France and endeavors to re-invent the classic film musical in terms of contemporary cinematic approach. Hooper does not rely on traditional methods of capturing the show for the screen, but utilizes the language of modern filmmaking to bring the experience into the 21st Century, complete with CG enhancements, rapid editing, and extensive use of steadi-cam photography. To be sure, there are times when the constant visual motion of the film threatens to overwhelm, and one can’t help but feel that certain moments- particularly in the numerous “arias,” mostly shot in tight close-up to capture the intimacy of the experience- might have been better served with the occasional use of a wider angle lens; certainly, in some of the bigger musical sequences, for example the musical montage, “One Day More,” a more expansive perspective feels needed in order to give full reign to the magnitude of the forces in play. There is a trade-off to be made here, though; after all, film is an entirely different medium than theater, and it is fitting that a movie should provide an experience impossible to receive from a stage performance. There is little point to constructing a motion picture that endeavors only to recreate what has already been seen on stage, beyond preserving it for archival purposes, though this is precisely the approach that has been taken with many stage-to-screen transfers; the best cinematic transpositions of theatrical pieces come when a director re-imagines the material without attempting to make the camera lens a mere substitute for a proscenium arch. Hooper has made his epic with this clearly in mind, and his eye for exploring the visual possibilities of the art form, from the repeated use of overhead perspective to the vastness of the crowded streets of Paris to the closer-than-close revelation of every subtle shift of expression in the performers’ faces. In particular, he exploits the advantage of realism in the depiction of the crushing conditions of 19th Century poverty, an important factor of the story that can, on stage, only be suggested (or worse, glossed over), as well the contrasting Empire-era opulence of the salons and gardens of the wealthy. Set against the impressive splendor of the production design by Eve Stewart, clothed in the sumptuous authenticity of Paco Delgado’s costumes, and captured with the larger-than-life digital graininess of Danny Cohen’s pseudo-cinema-verité photography, Les Misérables meets and exceeds any reasonable standard for visual style, and- from a technical standpoint, at least, regardless of how picky audiences may respond to the interpretation of the content- provides a total movie-going experience worthy of its beloved source material.
Once again, it seems, I am in the position of having to make full disclosure of the fact that I am, in fact, a fan. Though I have personally had an ambivalent relationship with the musical theater genre (as opposed to outright film musicals, of which I am an unrepentant enthusiast), Les Misérables is a piece which captured me from the very first time I heard it, and I have seen several stage productions over the years (including the original Broadway run);though its pop-opera format might seem, for some, to cheapen the translucent sincerity of Hugo’s masterful novel, its message of humanism and social awareness shines through in a way that never fails to leave me deeply moved and inspired. Though this long-awaited film version is not, nor could it ever have been, a perfect rendition, and though I will admit to finding myself overly critical of details and choices throughout as I watched it (on opening day, of course), in the final analysis I have only praise to give it. The deciding factor for me lies in the simple fact that, at the end, not only was I personally affected by the emotional upheaval to which it carried me- despite my every-lyric-by-heart familiarity with the show- but my companion, a skeptical died-in-the-wool disparager of musicals, was also moved to a prodigious outpouring of tears, as was, indeed, every member of the packed audience. Make no mistake about it, Les Misérables is a tear-jerker of the highest order, and the enormity of its scope only serves to intensify its effectiveness as such. If such fare is normally unappealing to you, or if you are one of those aforementioned musical non-lovers, you might want to skip this one, no matter how many awards it may end up getting. You might want to, but my advice is: don’t. Go and see it. Give it a chance. Like my companion, you may find yourself unexpectedly opened up and transported to a new level of appreciation for the possibilities of the genre. It’s not a guarantee, but Les Misérables has the power to affect such a softening of the heart, and this movie largely succeeds in capturing the qualities that give it that power. Those qualities, ultimately, rest in the soul of the story, and not in its spectacle; Les Misérables is not about revolution, nor romance, nor social injustice, nor even the desire for a better life- an oft-repeated theme within its narrative, and one from which it admittedly derives a great deal of its humanistic appeal. It’s about the redemption which comes from the simple Christian ethic of self-sacrifice, of caring more for another than for oneself; this principal is embodied in the story of Jean Valjean, which remains the central focus throughout the interwoven subplots and ultimately yields the final epiphany towards which the entire saga builds. When it comes, the catharsis which results from our sharing of it is powerful and cleansing, and no matter what quibbles you may or may not have about this or that detail of the film’s interpretation of the musical, they seem inconsequential in the face of that experience. In that sense, Les Misérables completely succeeds in its purpose, and at the end of the day (if you’ll pardon the expression) you can’t expect more than that.