Where to begin, where to begin.
I first read Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables probably about 10 years ago, after falling in love with the stage musical soundtrack. Having never seen it performed, I wanted to understand what was going on between the songs. It’s an epic book and epic story and I’m glad I read the book before seeing any movie adaptations because, frankly, not a single one has ever done the book justice. Even if you leave out all of Hugo’s “extraneous” pages (meaning: the history lessons, the minute descriptions of street plans, the constant “one thing more”s that tack on another chapter or two), there is still too much novel to pack into less than three hours of screen or stage time.
I think that’s why the musical (and new movie musical) succeeds where other movie adaptations have failed. You can fit a lot of history and emotional impact in a song, that would take much too long to try and show in a traditional, narrative way. But still, so much is left out!
Instead of continuing this review in the Hugo-esque rambling manner in which I’ve begun, it may be simpler to switch to a list version of my thoughts on the most recent adaptation.
- For the most part, I really enjoyed the casting. Hugh Jackman was absolutely wonderful. I loved his portrayal of Valjean, although he seemed a little young. Minor quibble, though, and didn’t detract at all. I also thought Anne Hathaway made a beautiful and tragic Fantine, Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter were hilarious as a more comic-relief style Thernardier’s, Aaron Tveit was wonderful as Enjolras (one of my favorite characters), Samantha Banks played a perfect Eponine, Eddie Redmayne was surprisingly convincing as Marius, and young Daniel Huttlestone stole every scene he was in as Gavroche. On the other hand, Russell Crowe was a disappointing depiction of Javert (another of my favorite characters) – in both the delivery of his numbers and any depiction of character depth, and I struggled listening to every high note Amanda Seyfried attempted as Cosette (which may not be fair because she’s my least favorite character of the story so I’m predisposed to be unimpressed).
- For a period piece, I was hoping to be dazzled by costumes and sets and locations. So what was up with 50% of the movie being spent in extreme close up? I found this incredibly odd, and downright annoying in the final scene/number. When the cast is all holding the same note, it makes no sense to switch between close ups of their faces, mouths wide open. It was kind of creepy.
- My other favorite character is Bishop Myriel, so it was wonderful to see Colm Wilkinson (the first stage Valjean, who also performed in the 25th anniversary special) portray him so well, for the short amount of time he was on screen. Beautifully done.
- It is amazing to me how well Hugo’s indictment of 19th century France rings true in America’s 21st century. I’m not sure if it’s the movie medium that had me thinking more often of current world parallels, or just that I’ve been reading too many news stories lately. But it seemed particularly apt. From the preface of the novel:
So long as there shall exist, by reason of law and custom, a social condemnation, which, in the face of civilization, artificially creates hells on earth, and complicates a destiny that is divine, with human fatality; so long as the three problems of the age—the degradation of man by poverty, the ruin of women by starvation, and the dwarfing of childhood by physical and spiritual night—are not solved; so long as, in certain regions, social asphyxia shall be possible; in other words, and from a yet more extended point of view, so long as ignorance and misery remain on earth, books like this cannot be useless.
- Finally, there was much buzzing about the fact that many of the actors were not trained in voice, and that the songs were filmed rather than being pre-recorded. Personally, I found most of the vocal performances quite beautiful and didn’t mind that they were not always pitch-perfect (well, except the aforementioned screechings…). Rather than the performances, which were mostly good, I was more surprised by the changes to the music, verses left out, etc.
In summary, a beautiful adaptation that unsurprisingly left out some of the aspects I love best about the story. Highly recommended, but take your tissues.
K’s rating of Les Miserables – 8/10 mangoes
C’s rating of Les Miserables – 8.5/10 mangoes