Les Misérables is the movie I was dreading to see and for two separate reasons. First, I was afraid that it wouldn’t live up to my experiences when seeing the stage play. I know the soundtrack (from the 10th Anniversary concert at the Royal Albert Hall) inside and out, memorized every voice and ever nuance in the performances. I was afraid the movie wouldn’t equal such grandeur. Second, I was also afraid that it WOULD be that good because if it was then I knew I would be taken on a very draining emotional roller coaster ride. My second fear was realized.
One of the problems with the stage play is its minimalism and this can make it hard for the audience member to relate to the hardships that were going on in France at that time. There are no such difficulties here. The visuals, right from the very beginning of the movie, are breathtaking. We see how hard life was there, especially for those who were prisoners. The hard labor they had to endure was so overwhelming that I felt like I was at the point of pure exhaustion, and that was only the first five minutes. What this movie does is show how hard life was during the period of the French Revolution, and that is something which is clearly lost in the stage play.
The production values are incredible and they are only surpassed by the cast and their performances. For those who may not know, the principal cast sang their parts during filming, and that’s what we hear. There is no dubbing, no lip syncing to a pre-recorded song track. The actors were given small ear devices which allowed them to hear a piano accompaniment so as to aid them in their tempo as well as staying on pitch. The final result seen in this movie is beyond anything I’ve ever seen before, or will likely ever see!
From the start we are introduced to Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) who is a prisoner about to be paroled, as well as the policeman Javert who becomes more than just a nuisance in Valjean’s life. Jackman is a trained stage singer and he definitely makes use of it here. His singing is so powerful that all I could think was how well suited he was for the role, not just for this film, but also for the stage. Jackman could actually take on this role on Broadway or the West End in London. He delivers a performance that is so strong that I immediately forgot any past parts in previous movies that I had seen him in. He was, in my mind, Jean Valjean. The part of Javert was played by Russell Crowe. If there is any weak spot it is here. Mind you, Russell’s acting as the obsessed Javert is superb, and while he was fully capable when it comes to singing, it does not match the level given by Jackman and the other cast members. However, once I got past this one deficiency I did find myself enjoying the level of acting that he delivered.
The movie was filled with some truly wonderful surprises, the first of which was Anne Hathaway as the doomed Fantine. Hathaway has always been a very strong actress, but here she really gets to pull out all of the stops and show us a woman who will resort to any means necessary to help support her only child, even at the cost of her own health and life. What we see is a performance that does not leave a dry eye in the entire theater. Also of great surprise is Eddie Redmayne as Marius Pontmercy. His is a tricky part as I had yet to hear someone of strong vocal ability do something positive with this part. Redmayne succeeds and more. While his credentials show that he has serious acting training, there is nothing mentioned regarding his ability to sing. I daresay that if anyone has doubts to that ability all they need do is hear him here as he sings with the quality and clarity of an Irish Tenor.
Also, in a truly comical twist, are the Thénadiers, the innkeepers that Fantine pays to care of her child, and they are wonderfully played by Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter. The level of comedy ranges from the disgusting all the way to broad slapstick between the two of them. It doesn’t matter if they are or are not great singers. Their acting provided everything that Les Misérables could hope for.
The last of the principals worth mentioning is Amanda Seyfried who plays Fantine’s daughter, Cosette, as an adult. Musicals are not foreign to her as Seyfried’s last big musical effort was the ABBA inspired film Mamma Mia!, and while Seyfried’s singing was barely adequate there, her singing here has an almost canary like quality. Not powerful, but very lyrical. With more serious training she might actually have the skill to be a strong coloratura soprano. I would also be remise if I didn’t mention one of the most incredible cameos ever, and that is of Colm Wilkinson as the Bishop of Digbe. Wilkinson is the tenor who originated the part of Valjean on the West End as well as Broadway, and to see him in this movie was such a treat, especially in the scene where the Bishop helps to turn Valjean’s life around into something positive for God. It was a moment in the film that simply took my breath away.
This movie is different than seeing the musical in a theater. With a stage performance the focus is on the singing with acting being made secondary. Regardless of what the actor or actress is doing on stage, the singing must always come off as beautiful as possible. Not so with this movie. Because the actors were allowed to sing their parts live while filming it allowed them to deliver acting performances which commanded every scene throughout the entire film. Regardless of whatever the song is, the quality of the acting always came first over the singing. Luckily, all of the principals are given a moment or two when they are allowed to show what kind of vocal chops they have, but again, never at the expense of whatever acting is required at that particular moment. This is why my second of two fears was realized, for it did take me on one incredibly draining emotional roller coaster ride. For a brief time after the film ended I could not talk without uncontrollably sobbing. The final scene, where all of the revolutionaries are gathered together to give us a reprise of “Do You Hear The People Sing?” it took every bit of will power to not stand up in the theater and sing along.
This is a movie that has set new standards in filmmaking, and will unquestionably be a very strong contender at the next Academy Awards.