Les Miserables

Like Westerns, musicals used to be ubiquitous in Hollywood.  The first talkie was a musical and music was an essential element even in the silent era, though it had to be provided live.  By the 20’s and 30’s it seemed like the studios wanted a song or two in every picture.  That’s why you need the remote handy whenever you watch a Marx Brothers movie so you can fast forward through the songs.  When you’re writing songs for dozens of pictures a year, most of them are going to be crap.

In the beginning musicals were almost exclusively romantic comedies, happy things that provided escape and comfort.  Gradually, though, around the 50’s and 60’s darker elements began to creep into the pictures.  From Curly trying to talk Jud into suicide in Oklahoma to the odd ambiguousness of My Fair Lady, to the tragic ending of West Side Story, musicals evolved to reflect the growing awareness of darkness in our society.  And then the trend toward realism in the 60’s effectively killed the movie musical.  They went through a moribund period on Broadway too.  And also like westerns they’ve never really returned in force to movie theaters.

And I don’t mind that, so long as the ones they do make are good.

The musical Les Miserables has had a long journey to the silver screen.  Based on the Victor Hugo novel of crime and redemption in 19th century France, it was a huge international hit on stage during the 80’s.  There have been filmed concerts, soundtrack albums and several non-musical adaptations, but nobody ever tried to adapt the musical itself, until Tom Hooper decided to take a crack at it.

He had the wisdom to cast most of the roles with people who can actually sing.  Hugh Jackman takes the lead role of Jean Valjean.  Anne Hathaway is Fantine.  Both of them have pretty good voices and are big enough stars to open a film with big box office numbers.  Even Russell Crowe who is cast as Javert has sung in a rock band for a number of years and can at least get in the neighborhood of the proper key.  Most of the other roles are taken by Broadway and West End veterans. 

Hooper also decided to record the vocals on set with microphones set up close to the actors.  The mics were then removed from the picture using CGI.  It seems to have worked but I really didn’t notice any difference in the quality of the performances between this picture and a musical that was done in the traditional way of recording the soundtrack ahead of time and lip-syncing on the set.  Plus Hooper’s method takes away the possibility of hiring a real singer to dub in the songs of an actor who can’t do it.

Les Miserables is a big sprawling nineteenth century novel that spans decades of the characters’ lives.  It has an episodic structure that doesn’t usually translate well into film.  In this case, however, Hooper has borrowed the structure of the musical and that works pretty well.  At first, the pace seems a little hurried but once you get used to the rhythm, you begin to lose yourself in the story.  Eventually over two and a half hours, you care very deeply about the characters.

The sets and costumes are very realistic, down to the grime of the city streets.  This contrasts nicely with the unrealism of most of the dialog being sung.  The lighting is realistic as well.

The performances are universally fine.  Jackman carries the film and does a great job as a man struggling to win and then keep redemption but not always knowing how.  Anne Hathaway’ Fantine is a tragic figure and she never fails to evoke empathy.  Russell Crowe’s Javert is unyielding and righteous, utterly convinced of the efficacy of the law.  All of them occasionally hit sour notes in their songs, especially Crowe but in general they do a pretty good job with the singing.

Likewise the musical theater vets do a great job translating their performances to the screen.  Samantha Barks rips your heart out as the lovelorn Eponine.  And Eddie Redmayne, who plays Marius, is tremendous as a young man torn by idealism and love.

It’s easy to see why it took so long to put Les Miserables on the screen.  It is a musical of epic scale, with a huge cast and many locations, dealing with momentous events.  Extraordinary talent is required to do it right.  And they succeeded.





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