Adapting a stage musical into a film has proven to been a dicey proposition in the years since Chicago burst onto the scene in 2002. Unlike original musicals (such as Moulin Rouge!, Enchanted, or even The Muppets), adaptations bring with them a lot of baggage and expectations. The especially long-running and popular shows have legions of devoted fans, who need to be pleased in order to help spread the word, however their expectations must be balanced with making the film appeal to the general populace (which, unfortunately, now seems to take pleasure in disliking musicals by default). It’s possible for a film to be too faithful (The Producers) and alienate Broadway purists, or go so far the other way as to lose all sense of their source (Rock of Ages). Equally important to the faithfulness of the adaptation is how well the film captures the spirit of the source; a film can be incredibly faithful but still miss the mark (The Phantom of the Opera) or can play things loose with the source and still manage to capture the spark (the brilliant, Mamma Mia!). Then there’s the issue of running time and the filmmakers who assume that audiences no longer have the patience to sit through 3 hours of singing, so the entire film feels rushed (Hairspray). And even if you do everything right, or at least as right as possible, there’s still no guarantee that your film will find an audience (Rent).
Les Miserables had to contend with all of these issues, but additionally carries the baggage of being one of the most beloved, longest running, and most well known musicals of the modern era, something with which Chicago, a somewhat more obscure musical, never had to contend. Les Mis manages to strike a perfect balance, creating an epic musical film for the ages (though not the greatest musical film of all time, as some overzealous reviewers have claimed). Director Tom Hooper’s decision to have the actors sing their parts live on set for the cameras as opposed to prerecording and lip synching to the music plays a big part in the movie’s success. It allows the actors to act as well as sing, and gives the music a reality and a visceral quality that perfectly matches the stylization of the film.
Les Miserables, based on the 1862 novel by Victor Hugo, tells the story of Jean Valjean, an inmate who is released from prison after serving 19 years for stealing a loaf of bread. The story is that of his redemption, and the power of love, hope and grace in his life. After an unexpected act of kindness and mercy forces him to confront his view of the world, Valjean sets forth to live the best life he can and along the way adopts a daughter and gets caught up in a revolution. Hugh Jackman (a Tony winner for The Boy from Oz, who’s no stranger to musical theater) plays Valjean with a depth of feeling that is hard to convey on stage without the benefit of close-ups. He is a confident singer, and its clear that he relishes the ability to improvise and act his way through the songs that live singing allows. His performance is much more raw than is typically seen on the stage version, which perfectly suits the character and the emotions involved.
Throughout his journeys, Valjean is hunted by Inspector Javert, played by a much-criticized Russell Crowe. Crowe, of all the actors in the film, seems the least suited to a musical, without a particularly strong voice. He gives a great performance, but it’s his singing that has drawn the vast majority of the critics’ fire, but I feel that most of the criticism has been unfair. It’s true that Crowe sings differently than the rest of the cast, with a voice that has none of the purity of the others, sounding more folksy and average. He also sings the songs “straight”, without deviating from the way they’re written to take full advantage of the live singing. All of which are valid criticisms, but in response I’ll say this: Crowe’s performance was the first time I’ve ever cared at all about Javert, and I’ve seen Les Mis at least three times on stage.
Crowe gives Javert a sense of humility before God and nature that is missing from the stage version, and that particularly comes across in his version of the song “Stars”. On stage, “Stars” is a bombastic ode to Javert’s view of his own self-importance, sang to the rafters in a gorgeous fashion that I nevertheless always found uninteresting. Crowe still sings it as a man confident of his place in the universe, but instead of being an all-important place, he sings it as a man who is humbly following what he assumes and has been taught is the will of God and the nature of the universe. This makes his eventual revelation more painful and brings out the contrast with Valjean to a much greater extent. Crowe turns Javert from a one dimensional jerk of a villain into a misguided and inflexible, yet pitiable man. He may be wrong in almost every way about the nature of the universe and the nature of God, but as played by Crowe I can, for once, see the man behind the facade and I pity him.
The supporting cast are all solid at the very worst. Anne Hathaway has gotten unanimous praise for her performance of Fantine, and her haunting version of “I Dreamed a Dream,” filmed all in one close-up take, is now the standard by which that song will always be measured. In the course of four and a half minutes, she spans the entire emotional scope of her miserable life, as she looks back from her wretched situation. It’s the best moment of the film, and the sort of performance that will be talked about for years and years.
The rest of the supporting cast is filled with a mix of Hollywood actors and stage performers. Eddie Redmayne, a West End and Broadway vet, injects heart and soul into his version of Marius, the young revolutionary, and his version of “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables” is fantastic. Samantha Barks reprises the role of Eponine from the stage and from the Les Mis 25th anniversary concert, and sings “On My Own” beautifully in the falling rain. Amanda Seyfried, Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen round out the cast as Cosette and the Thenardiers, and all manage to hold their own against more seasoned singers, though all have also starred in recent Hollywood musicals as well.
Running parallel to the story of Valjean’s redemption is the story of the failed June Rebellion of 1832, against the king who had been reinstated 2 years earlier. It’s a timeless story of the desire of oppressed people to rise up in order to create a more just society yet whose fear keeps them from action. The politics and the feelings involved can find easy mirrors in our current society, where the rich get richer and the poor struggle to make ends meet, and it gives the film a timely feel despite its setting. Yet the revolution, despite its prominent place in the story, still takes a backseat to Valjean’s internal struggles, where the true heart of the story lies, and Tom Hooper strikes a masterful balance between the epic scope of the plot and the personal nature of the story’s heart.
Les Miserables mercifully has a hearty running time, allowing the story and the musical numbers time to breathe without ever having to make any substantial cuts. Some of the songs get rearranged, and a couple minor tunes and some scattered verses are cut, but the vast majority of the show as fans know it is here on the screen. They even managed to fit in a new song by the original composer, a sweet lullaby sung by Valjean to young Cosette that feels right at home amongst the classic numbers. There are a few moments where things fail to translate from stage to screen as well as might be wished. “Master of the House,” one of the show stopping and lighthearted numbers that is a crowd favorite here feels a bit off, mostly because the over the top nature of the lyrics don’t mesh as well with the visceral quality of the film (it’s one thing to sing about mixing the kidney of a horse and the liver of a cat into sausages, and another altogether to see it on screen). But those moments, few and far between, do nothing to diminish the accomplishment of Les Miserables. This is truly one of the great modern musicals, taking its place near the top and proving that this musical film revival, though still quite young, is not quite dead yet, despite the haters. It makes me hopeful for the possibilities of all the musicals yet to be adapted to film, and when a movie makes you excited for what may be yet to come, that’s the highest praise I can give it.