Movie musicals are few and far between. Good musicals are even more scarce. In one of the most anticipated films of the year, Oscar-winning director Tom Hooper (The King's Speech) takes on the colossal feat of bringing Les Miserables, one of the all-time best broadway shows, to the big screen. To do this he brought an all-star cast (Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, Anne Hatahway, etc.), a new technique of live-singing each take, and plenty of behind-the-scenes footage to entice the audience. What we end up with is another movie, see also my review of The Hobbit, where expectations mean a ton. For me personally, I had high expectations because of the director, cast, and scope of the film. For countless others, expectations were high because of the association with the legendarily successful broadway adaptation of the original Les Miserables.
Hooper's approach was to focus on the acting, letting that emotion drive the tone of the songs. What you get then is an honest, raw, and gritty interpretation of the musical.
While this works wonderfully for a film in the sense of acting, it would definitely leave the theater musician lover disappointed. As previously alluded to, my expectations were limited in that I had not heard most of the music from the broadway show, nor did I know the entire story. So for me, all I expected was a great movie. But that's just my point - different mediums deliver different products, even if they are the same topic. This is a film version of a stage version of a book version of an author's imagination.
Les Miserables tells the story of Jean Valjean, an ex-con living amidst the backdrop of the French Revolution. Based on the novel by Victor Hugo, Les Mis is one of the most celebrated works of literature from its time period and remains one of the finest stage productions to date. You'd be hard-pressed to find a better story anywhere, and the redemptive themes and analogies throughout the tale are a perfect image of the mercy of Jesus through the gospel.
Maybe this is why everyone loves the story so much; it is literally programmed into our DNA. But that is another post for another time.
Through talking with friends and reading reviews of the film, it became apparent that if anyone didn't like the movie, it was mainly because of the quality of the vocal performances. It also became clear that it is probably impossible to both sing well and act well at the same time. I'll make a couple negative comments first:
While Russell Crowe is a superb actor, and did not disappoint entirely, I don't believe he was the best choice for the role of Javert. He was probably the weakest vocally, and his interpretation of the character did not seem quite as conflicted as I would've imagined him to be. Amanda Seyfried worried me from the start. She looks the part, but can she keep up with everyone else? Luckily for such an important character, she doesn't have that many lines, so she mostly pulls it off.
Everything else, I would say, is positive. The movie looked great – cinematography, costume design, sets, etc. The pace flowed well. Even at 2 hours and 40 minutes, the story and performances kept me fully engaged.
Anne Hathaway was, as predicted, the stand-out performance of the film. Her interpretation of “I Dreamed a Dream” may very well win her a well-deserved Oscar.
I would also mention Eddie Redmayne (Marius) and Samantha Barks (Eponine). I was particularly impressed with their vocals and acting. Finally, Hugh Jackman really did do a fantastic job. He won't belt out each line of every ballad quite the way your original cast recording CD may sound, but his performance is spot-on as the central character.
Bottom Line: Few movies do I INSIST people go see in the theaters. Few movies have the ability to wrap you around their figurative fingers, making you cheer and cry within seconds of each other. Few movies live up to really high expectations. Few movies paint a more accurate picture of the tragedy of the human condition and what it looks like to be redeemed. Les Miserables does all of these things.