So I decided to watch Les Miserables on Christmas day because it was the first day it was showing and I just couldn’t wait any longer to watch it. I am a huge fan of musicals and I am familiar with Les Mis not only because it is one of the most famous musicals of all time but because I have seen a VHS tape of the broadway musical (starring Lea Salonga) which my dad had to watch when he played the role of Javert for our Church production of the play, which I also saw. So I know the story and the songs and therefore had some expectations of the film version.
When the movie opened with the song “Look Down” I was overjoyed, because that was how the play did as well, and I was in awe of the majestic scene, and it occurred to me that this was what a movie had an advantage in over a play – the more realistic background sets.
However that was where the advantage ended. As the movie progressed I could not help but notice that certain parts of the story, which seemed poetic onstage, just looked ridiculous onscreen, like the battle the men fought and even Marius’s love for Cosette, which I now realized was just an infatuation. I found a review which verbalized what I was thinking:
Such a metaphysical story cries out for a heightened atmosphere, one that you might find in a stage musical. Unfortunately, the transplanting of material from one medium to another is always a delicate procedure, and sometimes the patient dies. In the case of “Les Misérables,” film literalizes the story and makes maudlin or ridiculous that which might have seemed poetic on the stage. The notion of Valjean’s having served time for stealing bread loses its metaphorical significance and seems more like a hard-luck story that he just won’t stop harping on. Likewise, the young revolutionaries in Act II – hiding behind barricades and fighting the entire French army – don’t seem like heroes so much as idiots getting themselves slaughtered for no good reason.
Another thing I agreed with on this review was that live-singing hurt the songs. See, for this film, the director decided that instead of recording the songs in a studio beforehand and having the actors lip synching to these songs while acting, they would sing the songs live while acting the scene to make the scenes more realistic and emotional. That did work, on the acting side, but the quality of the actor’s voices suffered as a consequence.
Jackman, when he sings in full voice, has a high, pinging, pleasing tenor that’s a precision instrument. It’s a voice that can thrill an audience. But for most of “Les Misérables,” he is in half voice, singing in close-up, and in half-voice Jackman is a disaster. His voice quavers and wobbles in and out of tune. There are times in “Les Misérables” where you might think the music is an experiment in atonal composition. But no, that’s Jackman.
I really wasn’t too thrilled with their singing, but overall, I still loved the movie because of the acting, especially that of Hugh Jackman and Anne Hathaway, whose raw emotions had me in tears for almost the entire duration of the film. The scenes that got me the most was Fantine singing “I Dreamed a Dream” and Valjean’s death scene at the end, at which point my hand was literally shaking as I lifted my bottle of soda to my lips to prevent my sobs from making any sounds and Grace finally couldn’t resist breaking out her pack of tissues and offering them to us. We left the theatre with all of us puffy-eyed. I was surprised, though, that while Eponine had the best vocals in the group, her “On My Own” and “A Little Fall of Rain,” which used to be the numbers that made me weep, did nothing for me in the movie. I don’t know if it’s me or her.
Perhaps it’s me. When I initially saw Les Mis, I was a teenager whose emotional depth and understanding was limited to Eponine’s unrequited love issues so I was focused solely on her, who, I now realize, was the least of the miserables. Now my favorite character is Jean Valjean, the main protagonist of the show, and rightly so, and who was played by Hugh Jackman so perfectly. Jean stole a mouthful of bread for his nephew and got imprisoned for 19 years in exchange. He is given a chance to turn his life around thanks to a priest who shows him compassion, and he learns to love when he takes Cosette in as his daughter. He realizes this in the song Suddenly, which was composed just for the movie (and which also made me tear up). He further redeems himself when he rescues Cosette’s love Marius from the battlegrounds in order to ensure that he leaves Cosette with someone to take care of her before he dies. I don’t think I have ever known a character who was so dynamic and noble, hence all the tears I shed for him.
My other favorite character is Fantine. Even though she was in the story for such a short time, her painful plight is gripping – a beautiful woman whose life is turned into hell when she is kicked out of her factory job and forced into selling her hair and her teeth and finally, her body, just to earn money to feed her child. As she sings, “I had a dream my life would be so different from this hell I’m living, so different now from what it seemed. Now life has killed the dream I dream,” my heart can’t help but break for her.
So go watch this movie, please. Definitely. But please bring tissues. Or better yet, a towel.
P.S. Some interesting trivia from my dear friend IMDB:
Anne Hathaway actually cut her hair very short for this movie, in a scene where her character sells her hair. She refuses to discuss how she lost 25 pounds to play the dying Fantine, as she admits her methods were life threatening, and doesn’t want to glamorize or promote her methods to young women.
Hugh Jackman lost considerable weight (30 lbs) and grew a real scraggly beard for scenes of Valjean as a prisoner, though mercifully they were shot first in production and he could shave and return to his usual weight for scenes playing Valjean as a wealthy man.
Typically, the soundtrack for a movie musical is recorded several months in advance and the actors mime to playback during filming. However, on this film, every single song was recorded live on set to capture the spontaneity of the performances. Everyone involved, from Hugh Jackman to Russell Crowe to producer Cameron Mackintosh, have praised this approach as it allowed them to concentrate on their acting as opposed to lip-syncing properly. The actors wore ear pieces which fed the sound of a live piano being played off-stage, to keep their singing in key. The main novelty here is, there’s no count-in or predetermined tempo and the piano is following the pacing of the actor, not the other way around – a first for a filmed musical. Orchestral music was added post-production.