Wednesday, 26 December 2012

Les Miserables - Updated Review

See the last paragraph below for updated comments.

Les Miserables, the stage musical version of Victor Hugo’s magnificent epic novel, written by Claude-Michel Schoenberg and Alain Boublil (Herbert Kretzmer did the English lyrics), is, for me, the greatest piece of entertainment ever created. I have seen Les Mis on stage four or five times, watched the concerts on DVD seven or eight times and listened to the various CD recordings over a hundred times. A filmed version of Les Mis was a long-time dream of mine (as it had been for Lord of the Rings). So even with a Christmas Day release of the film, I could not help but be there on opening day, trying hard to keep my expectations in check (and I had seen enough negative reviews to make that fairly easy).

As a result, Les Miserables rather handily exceeded my expectations. A final verdict must await a second viewing of the film, but I will share some initial thoughts. Knowing that the director, Tom Hooper, had chosen to go with big-name actors rather than musical heavyweights (and I cannot really fault him for that), I was expecting to have issues with the singing (and I did). What I was hoping for, by way of compensation, was superior acting. With few exceptions, I got it. I thought Hugh Jackman’s lead performance as Jean Valjean was remarkable, and Oscar-worthy (joining the ranks of Joaquin Phoenix, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Daniel Day-Lewis). Jackman’s singing voice does not have the range or power required for the lead role but his singing was nevertheless entirely acceptable to me given the quality of his acting. 

Anne Hathaway’s performance as Fantine was also outstanding and I have no complaints about her singing, which came as a mild surprise. A much bigger surprise was Eddie Redmayne’s singing (and acting) as Marius. I had heard that he had very little singing experience and had therefore wondered why he had been given the part, but he blew me away in every department. Amanda Seyfried’s performance as Cosette was adequate but her singing voice grated on me (some people like her voice, but Seyfried was my biggest singing disappointment). Samantha Barks as Eponine was magnificent. It was immediately obvious (as it was for a few other roles in the film) that Barks is a musical performer (and I recognized her from the 25th anniversary concert in London), but her acting was as good as her singing. Aaron Tveit was likewise a good Enjolras. Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter were interesting choices for the Thenardiers. While there were some glitches, I found their performances more than acceptable. Colm Wilkinson (the original London Valjean) as the bishop was a pleasant surprise. 

And then there’s Russell Crowe as Javert. Crowe is a very good singer and a very good actor, but I do not believe he was a very good choice to play Javert. The range and power issue, identified above for Jackman, was a much bigger issue for Crowe. Javert needs to be a daunting presence with a powerful voice to match. Crowe’s acting and singing missed on both counts. Nevertheless, there was just enough of a Javert feel and look about Crowe to keep me from getting too distracted by the inadequacies, so I will not describe this as a disaster. 

Besides the incredible acting display (often in close-ups), which give Les Mis an emotional power the stage cannot reproduce, I was particularly impressed with the scenes which were added to the musical, most notably the scene in which Valjean and the young Cosette try to elude Javert. The additional music was underwhelming but tolerable.

Les Miserables is a very dark film with desaturated colours and a dingy feel. This is well-suited to the story, much of which focuses on the life of the poor in 19th century France, and I generally found the cinematography to be excellent. I haven’t tried to summarize the plot, assuming a general familiarity with the story of Valjean (a former convict who breaks his parole) and Javert (the officer who hunts him).

All in all, in spite of obvious imperfections, Les Miserables the film was a thoroughly satisfying experience. But those are not words I would normally use to describe one of my favourite films of the year. So the question for me is whether, upon at least one repeated viewing, Les Mis can move beyond satisfying to thrilling or mind-blowing. If so, an appearance among my top three films of the year (and even my top thirty films of all-time) is not out of the question. If not, well, it is still a film I will want to watch again and again. I will give it a tentative ****. My mug is most definitely up.

I have now watched Les Miserables for the second time. As I had hoped, I was able to free myself from critical considerations and just enjoy the film for what it was. Again, as I had hoped, the result was that I enjoyed the film more the second time around, forgiving all manner of imperfections. I am now giving Les Miserables a solid **** and stating that it will almost certainly be my second-favourite film of the year.

1 comment:

  1. So we didn't wait long either (sorry I'm typing on a computer with no periods) - My thoughts on the singing line up very well with yours - a few disappointments but never enough to distract from the power of the film for very long - I was much more than satisfied - Fantine, Eponine and Marius were all awesome, acting and singing and the kids were great - Valjean was a little inconsistent singing but I totally decided to overlook that after Bring Him Home which I thought wonderful - Javert was also a little inconsistent and as you say lacking in power, but still overall he held up well, I thought - The close up photography worked for me and the film had me nearly in tears on several occasions (and those who know me know this is saying a lot even though age is slowly making me soppier)- The themes and archetypal depth all come out strong and the film version gave the opportunity to add a few good tidbits which I won't mention so as not to spoil the small delights - Easily **** from me