Les Miz

Les Miserables is an overwhelming spectacle. It is ambitious in its loyalty to the source material, the use of recitative and the mixture of established Broadway professionals with Hollywood amateurs. Unfortunately, in attempting to please both theater fans and regular moviegoers, the filmmakers have muddied the waters.
In between the few bright shining moments, we have to suffer through hours – literally, HOURS – of seemingly interminable caterwauling and slow-dying. By the time we got to the last death scene (that’s not a spoiler, lots of people die — their lives are miserable, remember?), and someone said “Hang on, you’re going to be fine!” I audibly groaned. Not ANOTHER long, drawn-out fading away sequence. I was relaxing in the comfort of an easy-boy with wine and cheese served at my seat, and it was still painful to sit through.
Les Miserables movie Les Miz Colm Wilkinson Hugh Jackman the Bishop
That’s not to say that I hate the musical itself; I do love me some Les Miz from time to time. I wouldn’t call myself an aficionado by any means, but as a musical theater geek I might know more than the average bear; I’ve seen it performed live twice, watched the reunion concert specials every time they came on TV and fallen in love with the original Jean Valjean, Colm Wilkinson (YES I know he’s old and it’s slightly creepy but have you heard this man sing Gethsemane?! I get chills every time).
But even for a self-professed musical lover, the majority of this movie felt like a chore. It would have been enormously improved by some liberal edits: “Master of the House,” performed capably by Helena Bonham Carter and Sasha Baron Cohen, was completely unnecessary for the story and added about 10 minutes of wasted screen time. (Valjean’s new song “Suddenly” was equally pointless).
Russell Crowe Les Mis
We could have saved another 5 minutes of agony by eliminating Russell Crowe’s soliloquy, “Stars.” Crowe’s take on Javert was competent, but you have to consider that what makes musicals and operas a joy to sit through for 3 to 5 hours is the beauty of the music. Crowe just doesn’t have the training, experience and (to be completely honest) raw talent to keep us enraptured. Listen to his subdued, and frankly somewhat boring (particularly 2 hours in) take on the song as compared to Philip Quast’s. I’m not going to argue that Crowe’s voice needs to be as great as a theater legend, just trying to illustrate the point that portraying a character as a talented actor isn’t enough in this case. Crowe defended his performance as “raw and real,” meeting the intentions of the director; but as Anne Hathaway demonstrated, it is possible to be both “raw and real” and “musically talented.”
Les Mis Hathaway and Jackman
Which brings me to Hugh Jackman. I think he’s charming and charismatic, and based on previous performances, I thought he was a great singer as well. But he is first and foremost a film actor, which means that he prioritized the physical performance over the musical one. He attempted to act out all of his songs, so not only did his singing suffer, but the music — designed to convey all those emotions Jackman preferred to act out — got lost in the shuffle. Granted, for someone who only dabbles in theater, he did a great job. But that qualification — for an amateur — means that some of the more difficult songs, which are beautiful and haunting when done correctly, fell flat. “Bring Him Home” was particularly painful; Jackman can’t hit the notes with richness and clarity, and his voice felt weak and tremulous throughout the whole movie.
Hugh Jackman Les Miserables movie Les Miz Jean Valjean Look Down
This might be my theater bias speaking; his acting performance felt genuine and captivating, but I was so disappointed to see “Who Am I” squandered that it was hard to see past the shortcomings. Once you’ve heard and been caught up in a performance like this one, it’s hard to lower the bar.
Anne Hathaway Fantine Les Miserables Les Miz movie I Dreamed a Dream
Lest I come across as too unforgiving, I will admit to being completely stunned and overwhelmed by Anne Hathaway’s performance. I wasn’t bowled over by her clip in the trailer, but that doesn’t do her performance justice AT ALL. She’s a strong enough singer, but she really turned in a powerhouse performance for the camera. I’ve seen dozens of ingenues perform “I Dreamed a Dream,” usually wistful, sad, sweet — but Hathaway was brutal. She conveyed anger, bitterness, self-hatred, in a display of raw emotion that not only had me in tears, it nearly had me SOBBING. That song isn’t about reminiscing over a lost love, it’s a woman who’s dead inside, angry and heartbroken over the loss of her innocence and the realization that the world is a cruel place.  Her perfect balance of music with meaning demonstrated the potential movies have to enhance and build upon the theater world; while that potential wasn’t realized across the board, it was still wonderful to see.
Les Miserables movie Les Miz Enjolras Aaron Tveit
Amanda Seyfried and Eddie Redmayne hit their notes (faintly, in the case of the former) and gazed dully at each other, but Aaron Tveit and the other young revolutionaries were fantastic, as was Samantha Barks as Eponine. Another great performance could be seen from the aforementioned original Jean Valjean – Colm Wilkinson – who played the Bishop who helps Valjean after his release. I didn’t realize he had a role in the movie at all, so his cameo was a welcome surprise. I would have loved to see more of him though; they could have de-aged him, right?! Come on, SFX.
So while there were a few bright moments throughout the movie, and watching Anne Hathaway’s performance was a powerful experience, overall I think it’s just way too long and tedious to sit through in the theater. Wait for the rental.

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As a little lagniappe (that’s “a little something extra” for the non-New Orleanians), here are, in my opinion, some of the greatest musical theater performances available on Youtube. They range from concert performances to movie adaptations; if these don’t win you over, nothing will!

Colm Wilkinson performing “Who Am I?” at the Les Miserables 10th Anniversary Concert:

Wilkinson’s jaw-dropping rendition of “Gethsemane” from Jesus Christ Superstar:

From the 1973 movie adaptation of JCS, a stunning performance of “Heaven on Their Minds”:

Adorable and fun, Greg Kinnear singing “Summertime”  from Porgy and Bess in Stuck on You (singing starts around 1:20):

Anthony Warlow, most gorgeous male voice ever, from the Jekyll & Hyde concept album singing “I Need to Know”

Warlow with Philip Quast, singing “Lily’s Eyes” from Secret Garden (I can’t watch Harry Potter without thinking of this song)

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8 Comments

  1. Let this be an educational resource for future generations. Take note, producers, and learn from the mistakes of Rock of Ages and the accomplishments of Les Miserables. Great review.

    1. oy Rock of Ages… I saw that one onstage and for the life of me can’t fathom why anyone would WANT to make that into a movie (or even a play?!). Cheesy non-plot told through most over-done karaoke fare. I’ll take Les Miz any day, even at 3 hours!!

  2. Great review, very informative! I’m looking forward to seeing it because of Anne, I’m kinda worried I won’t really like anything except for her performance.

    1. Thanks Sati! Anne won’t disappoint, and your lowered expectations are actually a good thing – I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised by some of the supporting characters. Just make sure to have some caffeine beforehand 🙂

  3. I did have mixed feelings after seeing it but I didn’t dislike it as much as you did. I think it was an ambitious movie with alot of incredible moments.

    I do think that musicals, especially those that are sung-through like this one, should have all proficient singers. I think Crowe was a misstep in the casting process; he really was not that good in the entire movie, often stiff and unexciting. I disgree with you on Hugh Jackman; I thought he was solidly good. I would have thought he would have shone more in the movie though as I think he has more experience than Hathaway. Hathaway did steal the spotlight; her “I Dreamed a Dream” was amazing (it was also the moment when great acting and direction came together) and probably my single favorite moment in film in 2012. I was also very impressed with Eddie Redmayne who I never knew was a singer and was probably the best in the entire movie (“Empty Chairs at Empty Tables” was beautiful).

    Unlike you, I thought the way the content of the story was presented was great, just that the direction and choice of shots were terrible.

  4. I did have mixed feelings after seeing it but I didn’t dislike it as much as you did. I think it was an ambitious movie with alot of incredible moments.

    I do think that musicals, especially those that are sung-through like this one, should have all proficient singers. I think Crowe was a misstep in the casting process; he really was not that good in the entire movie, often stiff and unexciting. I disgree with you on Hugh Jackman; I thought he was solidly good. I would have thought he would have shone more in the movie though as I think he has more experience than Hathaway. Hathaway did steal the spotlight; her “I Dreamed a Dream” was amazing (it was also the moment when great acting and direction came together) and probably my single favorite moment in film in 2012. I was also very impressed with Eddie Redmayne who I never knew was a singer and was probably the best in the entire movie (“Empty Chairs at Empty Tables” was beautiful).

    Unlike you, I thought the way the content of the story was presented was great, just that the direction and choice of shots were terrible.

    1. I agree with you; I think Crowe was a big mistake in casting. Some people actually enjoyed Crowe’s performance (I thought he was a snooze-fest), so I wanted to make the point that being a good actor and a competent enough singer – i.e. carrying a tune – is not enough. Yes, Javert is meant to be stoic and unemotional, but this is the point where he’s supposed to bare his soul, and through the magic of theater/music the audience gets to see something that otherwise would remain hidden! That’s a point I think non-musical fans kind of miss; they see performances like the videos I posted as melodrama rather than a glimpse into the inner workings of a character’s mind.

      I did think Eddie Redmayne had a very sweet voice, and he did Empty Chairs really well, but I wasn’t carried away by it. Plus I found the tight close-up a little uncomfortable; it seemed so organic in I Dreamed a Dream and kind of forced in this case. But maybe I was just too exhausted by that point to appreciate it 🙂

      Thanks for the thoughtful comment!

  5. Always learn from your articulate and well composed reviews, which are also “right on.” Was mesmerized by your inclusion of the video of Colm Wilkinson’s staggering rendition of “Gethsemane” from Jesus Christ Superstar:

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