During the build-up to Christmas 2012, there was something very actively on the minds of theater fans across the country and around the world, and it didn't have anything to do with the usual trappings of the Yuletide season.
I refer, of course, to the long-awaited movie version of Les Misérables, based on the international smash-hit stage musical by Alain Boublil, Claude-Michel Schönberg, and Herbert Kretzmer. Beyond the attraction of the piece itself, there was the stellar cast of Hollywood A-listers (e.g. Anne Hathaway, Russell Crowe, Helena Bonham Carter, and Hugh Jackman) as well as theater favorites (Eddie Redmayne, Samantha Barks, Aaron Tveit, and...er...Hugh Jackman.) I mean, talk about your sky-high expectations, right?
I had a chance to see a preview of the movie the week before Christmas and I found it to be a mixed bag at best. Director Tom Hooper ("The King's Speech") doesn't appear to have much experience directing musicals, either on stage or for the screen. Then again, these days who does have a lot of experience directing movie musicals?
Hooper makes a number of deliberate choices in filming Les Misérables, including the much-discussed decision to have the actors sing live on-set. This made a certain amount of sense, at least in theory. Hooper was putting the drama before the musicality, and having the actors sing live, Hooper's thinking went, would yield more convincing performances. A commendable experiment, to be sure, but the results are decidedly mixed, with the evidence tipping more toward the negative.We all knew going in that Hugh Jackman could sing, although I've always maintained that his technique was too nasal and under-supported, and that if he didn't get some coaching he was going to damage his instrument. Well, it appears that he has indeed received some coaching, and when he's singing full-out here he sounds terrific, although he tends to sound thin and pitchy during softer passages. As for his larger performance, he kind of came in and out for me, at times fully embodying the role of Jean Valjean, at other times never letting me forget that he was Hugh Jackman. (A very similar problem dogged Jackman when he appeared in A Heavy Rain on Broadway.)
The real star of Les Misérables - The Movie is Anne Hathaway, who is simply sensational as Fantine. Here, Hooper's live-singing experiment yields extraordinarily positive results. Hathaway delivers a heart-rending version of "I Dreamed a Dream," and I'm fully convinced that, if she had sung to a prerecorded track, the song wouldn't have been nearly as devastating. But Hathaway doesn't just hit this song out of the park: her entire performance is brimming with pathos. She's only on-screen for about 20 minutes or so, but her gaunt countenance seems to haunt the entire film. There's already a good deal of Oscar talk about Hathaway, and I'm all for it. Here, she's gold.
Another cast member who shines is Tony-winner Eddie Redmayne as Marius. Redmayne takes a role that could very easily have veered into melodrama and cheese and renders it rich with nuance and credibility. Redmayne comes off here an understated wonder, a performance that unfortunately upstaged that of another stage veteran, Aaron Tveit, as Enjolras. I've seen Tveit on-stage in both Next to Normal and Catch Me If You Can, and he really commands your attention in a live theater. But on the big screen, Tveit's striking looks and vivid sense of characterization don't quite shine through.Also disappointing were the potentially movie-stealing turns from both Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen as the Thénardiers. Both have proven themselves eminently capable at movie musicals (see Sweeney Todd), but here they both underplay their roles to the point where they make little impact at all. This is likely a case of poor direction, and clearly Hooper was going for something a little more sinister than we're used to seeing on stage. I mean, that's a certainly a choice, but neither actor seemed to be enjoying himself or herself, and heaven knows there's precious little comic relief in the piece as it is.
And then there's Russell Crowe as Javert, who is simply painful to watch and to listen to. Apparently, Crowe performed in a good deal of musical theater before he become famous. You'd never know it from the evidence here. Not since Marlon Brando croaked out the otherwise stellar score to Guys and Dolls has there been a movie-musical performance this stilted, this tin-eared, this downright agonizing. Despite a reported six months of vocal study, Crowe seemed physically uncomfortable singing, and his face couldn't seem to hide his discomfort. I mean, the guy's got the acting chops, right? You'd think he'd be able to find a way to make the songs work, a la Rex Harrison or Robert Preston. No such luck.
Hooper brings a very stark look and feel to the movie (with the aid of cinematographer Danny Cohen), giving the film a sort of hyper-realism. At times, this works extremely well, particularly for the dank and seedy dockside setting for Fantine's fall into prostitution. But the sweeping, realistic vistas frequently worked against the film. Somehow when you watch Les Misérables on stage, the students' rebellion seems so much more grand and momentous. However, the movie renders the central insurrection puny and futile.
Another unintended effect of Hooper's hyper-realism and broadened perspective is that they really bring out the holes in the plot, holes that are admittedly present in the stage version. For instance, the whole notion that Valjean needs to hide his "shameful" past from Cosette seems a lot less credible here. Also, it's not entirely clear why the students are fighting in the first place, nor what they actually hope to accomplish. And why does Jean Valjean remain in Paris once he discovers that Javert is stationed there? (Hooper adds some inexplicable touches of his own, as when a momentarily sentimental Javert pins one of his medals on the fallen Gavroche on the barricade. Um, didn't this kid just minutes before rat out Javert and spoil his nefarious plans?)
As is the custom with modern movie musicals, the creators have written a new song for the film. The goal here is usually to snag an Oscar nomination for Best Song. (Only songs written specifically for a movie are eligible, and the category is notoriously lacking in meaningful competition.) Sometimes these efforts yield relatively pleasant results, as with "Listen" from the movie version of Dreamgirls. Other times, we're subjected to the indignity of "Surprise, Surprise" from A Chorus Line. For Les Misérables, we have "Suddenly," a new song for Jean Valjean right after he has rescued young Cosette from the Thénardiers. I can certainly see what they were going for here: give Valjean a chance to show his softer side and establish his burgeoning fatherly feelings for Cosette. But the song feels formless and out of place with the rest of the score.
The movie is clearly a must for musical-theater fans (who will undoubtedly have fun spotting original cast members Colm Wilkinson and Frances Ruffelle in the supporting cast), but the question remains as to whether it will cross over and became a mainstream hit. The movie grossed $18 million on Christmas Day, so it seems to be off to a very solid start. I'm already hearing people talking about how success here might mean a movie version of Miss Saigon. I wouldn't hold my breath on that one, and frankly I'd rather see Wicked make it into movie theaters some time soon.
Very soon, in fact.