From the very start, my feelings about whether I wanted to see Les Misérables, the movie, was mixed. I wanted to see it but I was scared. After the bad experience with the film adaptation of The Phantom of the Opera, I didn’t think I could stand another disappointment. I did not want to again get that feeling that my favorite musical was getting murdered on the big screen.
Then, a month or so before Les Misérables opened, the the official trailer was released and there was Anne Hathaway singing “I Dreamed A Dream”. The trailer was followed by the news that all the songs were recorded in real time. No lip-syncing for the actors. And I knew I just had to see the movie.
But unlike others, I wouldn’t jostle with the crowd on opening day nor on opening weekend. Feedback from friends started to filter in and I just looked the other way. I consciously stayed away from reading reviews although I couldn’t seem to escape the nasty comments about Russell Crowe’s singing.
Then, Alex got a copy of the film’s soundtrack. I was listening to it on her iPod while waiting in line at the ob-gyne’s clinic, believe it or not. And I started forming opinions. Amanda Seyfried’s voice was too thin; Eddie Redmayne (Marius) sounded great; “One Day More”, that dramatic quodlibet sang by all the major characters, did not sound right because some got drowned by the others. I’ve been listening to the original Broadway soundtrack for a quarter of a century and I know that when performed properly, every solo in that counterpoint could be distinct, both in melody and in lyrics. But the film version of “One Day More” didn’t even come near.
Still, I was going to see the film. The intense excitement I felt after the release of the trailer was no longer there but I was still going to see it. And I did. I had to watch it twice before I felt I had the proper perspective to write about it.
In a nutshell, I have mostly no problem with the performers. I have a lot of issues with the technical aspects of the film.
Let me start with the actors. Colm Wilkinson, the original Valjean on West End and Broadway, as the bishop in the film was a surprise. Anne Hathaway deserves all the nominations and wins for her portrayal of Fantine, and never mind that bit with Ricky Lo (I felt she was nice to him under the circumstances). She is a great singer and a fantastic actor — big voice that’s full of emotion and raw expression. Hugh Jackman looked, moved and acted the part of Valjean to a T and he sang his songs well in a unique Hugh Jackman way.
Russell Crowe. So much has been said about his singing. When I was listening to the audio at the doctor’s clinic, I felt he sounded odd. Not that he missed the keys, not that he mumbled the words, not that he failed to relay the proper emotion… No, he didn’t miss his keys, he didn’t mumble and he relayed the emotions in the songs just fine. He just doesn’t have this powerful voice, and he didn’t try to pretend that he did. But he is a very good actor.
No matter how disappointed I was while listening to the audio, watching Russell Crowe as Javert was a dream. He was low-key, he was subtle… and he had these facial expressions that needed no words. That scene after he was caught spying and Valjean asked the he be allowed to “take care” of him, the expression on Russell Crowe’s face in that entire scene was priceless. Scared, angry, resigned… And when Valjean pushed him to a corner and Javert said, “You’ve hungered for this all your life; take your revenge”… Wow.
I never much cared for the looks of Eddie Redmayne. With looks like that, as Marius, it’s quite difficult to understand how he could have caught the eye of Cosette in a crowd. But when he sang, that powerful voice combined with magnificent acting, well, he gave justice to his role as Marius. His rendition of “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables” was alternately — and perfectly — anguished and melancholy.
In contrast, Amanda Seyfried looked perfect as Cosette — beautiful and innocent. It’s hard to believe that this young woman who could unleash such sexuality in her past movies could look innocent but she did, and that should be a testament to the kind of actor she is. She may not have this great voice for the part (she is no soprano, definitely, and Cosette’s songs are meant for a soprano) but when she sang, she sang with all her heart. Eddie Redmayne’s voice may have dominated over hers in “A Heart Full of Love” but that part was so dreamy you feel like you’re falling in love along with them.
Samantha Barks as Eponine… Let me put it this way. There was only one scene in the entire film that brought tears to my eyes. And, no, it wasn’t when Fantine sang “I Dreamed A Dream”. It wasn’t Fantine’s deathbed scene either, nor Valjean’s death. It was Eponine’s death, that part after she got shot at the barricade, and she and Marius sang “A Little Fall of Rain”. That’s the kind of reaction elicited from me when two great singers and actors do a scene together with such wonderful chemistry. It was so heart-wrenching, so tragic, so sad.
Save to say that Daniel Huttlestone’s Gavroche was literally a scene stealer (what a wonder child), the rest of the actors, I won’t go into too many details about. They were okay though not in any memorable way. Helena Bonhan Carter was okay though not nearly as good as she was in Sweeney Todd. I felt she looked too sexy and too classy for the role of dumpy Madame Thénardier. And Sacha Baron Cohen was not nearly as creepy as Monsieur Thénardier ought to be.
Now comes the nasty part. I’ll say it outright. The cinematography was terrible. No, it was worse than terrible. Let me dissect it bit by bit.
First of all, let’s not confuse cinematography with production design. They are two different things. The production design, including make-up and costumes, but excluding the lighting, were great. The cinematography and lighting were so bad that the production design was wasted to a large degree. The cinematographer, whoever he is, had two obvious obsessions — close-ups and narrow shots, and tilted angles.
Let’s start with the close-ups and narrow shots. You’re showing the seamy streets of Paris, crowds of poor people, a panorama of the miserable life and you use a lens meant for close-ups? In still photography, it’s like using a 50mm lens instead of a wide-angle lens. In film, that’s tragic. A lot of the shots were so short and narrow, it felt suffocating.
And then, there’s the matter of the tilted lens. Why people had to appear diagonal so darn often, I could not make sense of. The second time I watched the film, I was sorely tempted to count the scenes where the camera was tilted. What the…?? It’s not like the tilting more effectively conveyed anything. It didn’t. It was plain annoying. And repetitive. And predictable. And boring.
If that’s not bad enough, I had this nagging feeling that the cinematographer thought he was filming that opening scene of Saving Private Ryan. Or worse, The Blair Witch Project. Most of the scenes of Les Misérables were obviously taken with a hand-held camera or made to look like they were taken with a hand-held camera. Jerky. Dizzying. Effing irritating.
And I’m not done yet. Let me go into the lighting. In modern filmmaking, the set has two parts. The first is a physical set where the actors walk and move around. The second is the background. Sometimes, the background is real. But in period films like Les Misérables, it’s impossible to re-create Paris during the first half of the 1800s. So, you use technology — either computer-generated or, if you’ve seen the filming of Mamma Mia!, ultra-large tarp-like mats. When the lighting is correct, the viewer shouldn’t be able to tell where the physical set ends and the fake background begins because the blending would be seamless. Well, that’s not the case in Les Misérables. What a waste, really.
I understand that it is no mean feat to translate a stage musical into film. But it is doable. Over the last two decades, Evita, directed by Alan Parker, which opened in 1996 is (arguably the best) proof of that. I just wish that Les Misérables had delivered on the same scale. But it didn’t. So, there.