AH YES, I got to fulfill one holiday promise to myself—to see the brand-new film version of the hit musical “Les Misérables.” My husband and I caught it in Los Angeles day after Christmas, something we knew we wanted (to some extent, needed) to do.
My reasons for seeing the movie were threefold. First, having participated in its multiple live versions (stage musical and concert), I wanted to see how the show would translate to the big screen. Second, I had some friends and colleagues participating in the movie (including Samantha Barks as Eponine, whom I had the pleasure of working with on the 25th Anniversary Concert, as well as Frances Ruffelle, “Les Miz’s” original Eponine who plays one of the main “whores” … she was quite easy to spot). Third, I had my casting curiosities and wanted to see how Hugh Jackman (as Valjean), Russell Crowe (Javert), Anne Hathaway (Fantine), Amanda Seyfried (Cosette), Sacha Baron Cohen (M. Thenardier), Helena Bonham Carter (Mdm. Thenardier), Aaron Tveit (Enjolras) and Eddie Redmayne (Marius) would fare in these very iconic and beloved roles.
We all have our favorites as far as who’s played whom is concerned, and perhaps we are “married” to these portrayals, considering them our ideals.
Over the years I’ve seen Les Miz quite a few times, and fallen in love with a lot of the actors who have trod the boards. (I’ll never forget my first Valjean, Peter Karrie, whom I got to see in London in late 1988.)
Its own creation
So many incredible actors have come and gone in the show, both in the original production and in its current incarnation on tour in the United States—which begs the question, how do the film actors (and ultimately, this new film version) stack up to the memories etched in our heads?
I’m happy to say that to utter the words “stack up” would be wholly unfair, as this Les Misérables is its own unique creation. Yes, it utilizes the score from the musical that took over the world, but in a way that works for this particular medium.
Orchestrations are rethought; a brand-new song written that adds to the story of Valjean’s relationship with Cosette; a few elements from the original Victor Hugo novel brought in to thread scenes together and explain certain characters more clearly; and a couple of moments reordered to make sense for the film. (“I Dreamed a Dream” and “On My Own” are not where they would normally be, for example, but make absolute sense and are heartbreaking where they are now placed.)
Some recitative that was necessary for the stage are eliminated for the film, and other things that were deleted over the years have made their way back (it was great to hear lyrics that I thought were long set by the wayside). But for the most part, how I know the show to be is pretty much intact. That’s comforting.
Of course, there are going to be standouts, moments so stunning, performances so riveting, they require mentioning.
Jackman as Jean Valjean lives up to his musical-theater pedigree, fully embodying the role of the convict-turned-town mayor. From his first spine-chilling moments as a prisoner pulling a ship to land, to his final moments leading to his death, he was committed, and stunning.
However, I’ll have to say that the song “Bring Him Home” is still owned by the original Valjean, Colm Wilkinson, who makes a lovely appearance in the film as the Bishop, who saves Valjean’s soul.
Hathaway as Fantine was so beautiful. I love the stage incarnation of this character, how her track was plotted in the film, each rung on her descent into hell, leading into a most heartbreaking rendition of “I Dreamed a Dream” which sent tears flowing. Hathaway’s performance was equal parts rawness and grit, and vulnerability. If she wins a slew of awards for this, they will all be well-deserved.
I fell in love with Redmayne as Marius (himself a Tony winner for “Red”). First of all, I never knew he could sing like that! Second, he played this part (immortalized by Michael Ball in the original West End production and the 10th Anniversary Concert) with much passion and romance. His finest moment was his rendition of “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables.”
Barks as Eponine, Tveit as Enjolras, Seyfried as Cosette all gave great performances, as did Isabella Allen as Young Cosette and Daniel Huttlestone as Gavroche.
Most enjoyable were Baron Cohen and Bonham Carter as the Thenadiers, and they were both clearly enjoying themselves. Bonham Carter fared better here than as Mrs. Lovett in “Sweeney Todd,” and Baron Cohen’s unexpected ad libs were both hilarious and appropriate, refreshing and necessary.
The students at the Café Musain, the prostitutes at the docks, every ensemble member performed wonderfully as well (many of them have performed in a production of Les Miz in London, and a few in either the 10th or 25th Anniversary). There were quite a few familiar faces, which was thrilling to see. To all of them, I offer a hearty “Bravo!”
As wonderful as Les Miz is on screen, I will always be sentimentally attached to the original stage production, mounted with genius by Trevor Nunn and John Caird. Perhaps because I’ll never forget my first Les Miz (at the Palace Theater in London), and the first time I was transported by the story of finding hope in moments of despair; wearing Eponine’s dirt and rags on Broadway at the Imperial Theater, and Fantine’s locket and generous locks of hair at the Broadhurst Theater many years later; the first tentative steps on that turntable; and being surrounded by lush orchestrations in concert (credit to John Cameron and Chris Jahnke).
But perhaps, primarily, seeing this musical with the actors in the same room as you is an experience so incomparable, it stays forever.
All that said, I highly recommend this film. The score remains gorgeous and the acting sublime. Don’t forget to bring tissue, you’re going to need it.