We first caught a performance of Cameron Mackintosh’s stage musical, “Les Miserables” in London, and were fervently caught up in its unique mix of themes—love, revolution, vengeance, retribution, spiritual transformation—within the dramatic and artistic context of sung-through musical theater.
The live nature of the experience made the achingly beautiful storytelling even more passionate and moving, so we looked forward to eventually seeing the production transposed to the big screen, with the film medium’s additional imaging and emotive strengths adding further to its already overwhelming impact.
—Or, so we thought. Now that we’ve seen Tom Hooper’s film version of Victor Hugo’s tale and Mackintosh’s stage production, our reactions are decidedly mixed.
First, the good stuff: The decision to make the actors sing live during the movie’s shoot was a judicious one, because it added a lot to the film’s sense of acute reality and lack of artifice.
However, the choice of “singing actors” or “acting singers” to play those intense roles was occasionally less than felicitous—most strikingly in the case of Russell Crowe being tapped to play the key villain or “hounder” role of Javert.
In the stage productions we’ve watched, the role was filled by performers with really great singing voices, which they needed to do full justice to “killer” songs like “Stars.”
Alas, Crowe could only come up with a pale approximation of that power and musical unction, despite his best efforts, so the production couldn’t soar but had to painfully limp its way to its less than overwhelmingly moving finale. Other lead actor-singers like Hugh Jackman and Anne Hathaway fared better, however.
Back to the film’s plus points: Its visuals are exceptionally apt and lovely, providing moving visual correlatives to its characters’ profound feelings of love, loss and patriotism. Also grittily convincing and persuasive is the production’s period “feel,” which enlivens not just its images, but also its characterizations.
Even more profoundly affecting is the storytelling’s dramatic equipoise between two men and forces of conflicting values but coequal heights of principle: Jean Valjean’s inherent goodness and his nemesis Javert’s similarly “principled” way of hounding him to pay for his “crime,” even if it’s just the theft of a paltry loaf of bread!
Javert’s devotion to “justice” may be cruel instead of enlightened, but there it is!
On the debit side, the movie’s key handling of its scenes involving revolution are more romantically staged than powerfully persuasive. And the choice of a less-than-sufficiently “inspiring” actor-singer to play the important role of Marius deprives the production of some of the visual brio it needs to make its romantic scenes “satisfyingly” build up and peak.
Serving to make up for these low moments are the heightened thespic and musical portrayals turned in by Jackman and Hathaway. In her case, the movie pays Hathaway the ultimate compliment of staging her character’s signature song in rigorous close-up—a tough test to survive for any screen performer.
Jackman’s best suit is his convincing portrait of a basically good man who’s suffered enormously, but hasn’t lost his ability to “represent” the loving “face of God” we should all strive to be to others.