Prior to starting my review for the film adaptation of the musical “LES MISÉRABLES ” I should warn you I am a nut for theater musicals. I am an especially big fan of this musical and the thought of a film adaptation filled me with both giddy excitement and reluctant trepidation. My expectations were set exceedingly high, as they should have been at the prospect of any version of such a musical masterpiece.  Of course, having my expectations so high risks setting the film up for failure if it is unable to meet them.

Last night, the lights went down and the screen lit up with a scene shot under water looking up at the bottom of a great ship. There was a distant ‘booming’ sound and as the camera moved up and out of the water, high up into the air to look over the setting below… the powerful opening notes thundered through the theater. I was immediately enthralled, happy, and satisfied. For the next 2 hours and 40 minutes I was lost in Victor Hugo’s France of the 1800’s as I had so often been when viewing it live on a stage.  Director Tom Hooper’s “LES MISÉRABLES ” is a brilliant adaptation.

Stage musicals are an especially hard medium to adapt to the big screen, more for the reason of how to best present the actors singing in a believable setting that does not seem ‘staged.’  When on a stage in a theater it seems completely natural for a performer to start belting out a song, but it can seem awkward when you place those performers into a very real world. You have to deal with how to capture the performance.  After all, on stage everyone and everything is seen from afar and must therefore be presented bigger than life. Onscreen, you have edits and close ups and all manner of camera shots that draw your eye to where you should be looking. The cast must elicit the same power, but oftentimes with a little more subtlety. The most brilliant move the producers made was to have the actors sing live on set. No lip-synching. The performances were captured as they were given, several of them I noticed in one take.

Hooper was fortunate to have drawn such a stellar cast into such a difficult undertaking. Most had years of experience singing and performing onstage, yet of the main cast only a handful had a real theatrical background. This was a similar situation in Tim Burton’s “Sweeney Todd”, where the main cast made up for any vocal deficiencies with the sheer force of their overall performance.  The main difference in “LES MISÉRABLES ” comes from the fact that these people can sing as well as they act and the combination offers an emotionally staggering experience.

I wasn’t surprised that Hugh Jackman could sing, after all he got his start singing and dancing in musicals. But I think he will surprise most audiences who only know him as Wolverine from the “X-Men” movies. But even with that, many of the film roles he has taken on did not require the emotional depth required to portray Jean Valjean, a man imprisoned for 19 years for stealing a mouthful of bread. Jackman has a terrific singing voice, and never have I witnessed Valjean’s songs performed with such conviction. Several times I was moved to tears just watching the inner turmoil he elicits. This is an Academy Award worthy performance if I have ever seen one.

Anne Hathaway stars as Fantine, the factory worker wrongly turned out onto the streets and single mother of a small child. Not knowing what else to do and needing money in order to pay the disreputable innkeepers caring for her daughter Cosette, she sells everything she owns and winds down a path into the depths of despair. Hathaway’s performance of “I Dreamed a Dream” is far and above one of the most heartbreaking renditions I have ever heard.

Probably the most questionable bit of casting, or at least the one that seems to raise the eyebrows of many “LES MISÉRABLES ” fans, is that of Russell Crowe as Inspector Javert. I knew Crowe had some experience singing, at least with his bands (30 Odd Foot of Grunts and The Ordinary Fear of God), but whether or not he had the chops to deliver a performance that needed to be vocally intimidating and commanding remained to be seen. Those who have performed the role around the world in the past (among them Terrence Mann, Chuck Wagner, Roger Allum and Philip Quast) were cast because they were amongst the best musical theatre had to offer. It’s that important of a role.  This being said, I have to admit Crowe does not have the vocal prowess of those who have come before… HOWEVER….his is a case, as I mentioned before, where raw talent makes up for any vocal deficiency. Don’t get me wrong, Crowe's voice is really, really good and combined with the performance he delivers, his Javert is fantastic.

Amanda Seyfried steps into the shoes of the grown up Cosette and her performance has an effervescent quality which is exactly what this character calls for. She has a beautiful singing voice, and no doubt has had years of vocal training. On a personal note, she sings very high with a lot of vibrato in her voice, which is a style that I am not a big fan of.  But again, that is a personal preference and is not meant in any way to be detrimental comment about her talent. Just depending on your own ear, you may or not like her style.

Marius, the love of Cosette’s life, is played my Eddie Redmayne, and he is nearly perfect in the role. His Marius is young and full of hope. He is torn by whether or not to join his friends at the Barricade and fight the hierarchy or run away with his love. He has a very strong voice, and though he often sings in a higher tenor than I am used to for the character, he is fantastic.

It was rumored that Taylor Swift was being considered for the role of Eponine and I am thankful to say we were not tortured with what would have been a horrendous piece of casting. The role instead went to Elizabeth Barks, who armed with a theatrical background, is absolutely wonderful in the part. Her voice evokes both the playfulness and pathos of her character and blends beautifully with that of Seyfried and Redmayne.

Another pivotal character in “LES MISÉRABLES ” is Enjolras, the leader of the student insurrection. A misstep in casting here would have been fatal to the film. Having won several awards for his performances on and off Broadway, Aaron Tveit makes a huge impression onscreen in the role. He is earnest and determined, and has an incredible voice and presence.

Another character I was glad to see in the forefront is Gavroche. He is a bit of a street urchin, kind of like a French version of the Artful Dodger. Having portrayed the role in the West Production, young Daniel Huttlestone makes the move to the big screen and nearly steals the entire film.  It is his first film role, and he is phenomenal. His performance will stay with you long after you leave the theater.

For a bit of much needed comedy relief, Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter were chosen to portray the Thendardiers. The innkeepers charged with the care of Cosette are a pair of bumbling con artists and Cohen and Carter play them broadly, eliciting the occasional light mood in the production. Both were well chosen and I should add that audiences who are turned off by Cohen’s usual obnoxious fair (“Bruno”, “Borat” or “The Dictator”) should note that when he uses it, he is a very talented individual.  While not the perfect choice for Thenardier, he is an acceptable one.

Getting into the production itself, I have to say the sets, both real and built, were breathtaking. Every shot was like a gorgeous painting, even those depicting the hell many of our characters were living in. The cinematography and lighting were perfectly blended to make every set look natural. It is simply a beautiful film.

Those who are familiar with the musical will notice some differences. There are some lyric changes, all of which I found acceptable; they just throw you a little if you are trying to sing along in your head. Some of the music and a few lines here and there are missing and a few added, but most of these changes made sense in order for it to fit the scene as it had to be transitioned from stage to screen. There was also a noticeable shuffle of the song “I Dreamed a Dream”, which was moved forward a little in the libretto. Upon reflection, the placement of this song in the movie actually gives it far stronger meaning than where it was before. So kudos on this change.

There has also been a whole new song added for Valjean in order for it to be considered for certain Oscar nominations.  “Suddenly” is a beautiful song but does seem a little out of place. Most of the music throughout follows certain melodies, all of which become familiar as you listen, this one does not. However, its addition does add some depth to the character of Jean Valjean in his growth from a convict on the run to a man who now has a focus.

Fans of the original musical will be thrilled to see Colm Wilkinson (original West End and Broadway Valjean) cast as the Bishop who offers Valjean food and a place to sleep… as well as his freedom. The scenes between Jackman and Wilkinson are golden (silver?).

I am hopeful that “LES MISÉRABLES ” will do well in theaters; after all, the stage musical has been going strong all over the world for over 25 years and has millions of fans. But beyond those fans, I would love to see audiences introduced to and enjoy musical theater where they may never have before.

I rate this film a FULL PRICE (Twice!)

Directed by: Tom Hooper

Starring: Hugh Jackman, Ann Hathaway, Russell Crowe, Amanda Seyfried, Elizabeth Barks, Eddie Redmayne, SAcha Baron Cohen, Helena Bonham Carter, Aaron Tveit, Daniel Huttlestone

Studio: Universal

Opening Date: 12/24/2012

MPAA Rating:  PG-13


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