Les Miz on the big screen

I’m a big fan of Les Misérables. I know it’s melodramatic, and ham-fistedly heart tugging at times, but it works for me.  The first time I saw it, I was piecing things together after the wreckage of a long-term relationship,  so Eponine was the character I identified with. A Little Fall of Rain still kills me.

When I saw the trailers for the movie, I was excited by Tom Hooper’s plan to record the actors’ singing directly on the set instead of in a sound stage afterwards. On viewing the film, it appears that this is both its strength and its weakness. In Hooper’s zeal to get a microphone in front of every actor, he didn’t realize that it was unnecessary to have the camera in their faces constantly as well.

He made some other odd choices, too. The story opens with a  CGI ship being pulled into dry dock. For a movie with a goal of emotional verity, something so clearly fake was distracting. And when he’s got Cosette warbling away in her garden like a Disney princess, do we really need a fake butterfly as well? And Russell Crowe with a giant stone eagle?

Russell Crowe, it turns out, is kind of the weak link in the show, and I’m not sure whether to blame him or Hooper. First of all, there’s the singing: he often sounded strained and breathless, as if he were laced too tightly into a corset. If he couldn’t hit the notes, he shouldn’t have been cast. Secondly, his interpretation of Javert was odd. Did someone neglect to tell him Javert was the villain? We know his psychology from what he tells us. Javert doesn’t have the imagination to believe there is anything higher than the law, and he hates himself as well as Jean Valjean. So to sing Stars in an almost ballad-like style is completely out of character.

Hooper also scaled back the exuberant maliciousness of the Thenardier’s. Both Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter are quite capable of over-the-top performances, so I’m not sure why he chose to do that. The casting for young lovers Marius and Cosette was mixed. He chose slightly awkward characters rather than ones with matinée-idol good looks, which made the “young love” aspect believable, but also made you wonder (particularly in the case of Marius), “who is going to fall for him?”

Lest I sound too grumpy, I should say there’s is a lot of good stuff, too. Particularly in the form of Hugh Jackman and Anne Hathaway. Jackman has drawn his biggest film audiences as a comic book action hero, but he’s won both a Tony and an Olivier for his musical theatre work on Broadway and the West End, so he can sing, and he does, very well. Hathaway has musical theatre in her blood as well, not only does she sing Fantine passionately, her mother had the part in the first US touring production of Les Miz.

Over all, I enjoyed the film, and teared up in all the usual places, but it wasn’t quite strong enough to make me wait in line for the DVD release.  I’ll stick with my original cast recording.

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