Disclaimer, y’all: Prior to seeing this movie, I had never seen Les Miserables performed on stage or read Les Miserables on paper. I knew that the song “I Dreamed A Dream” was a big deal, but I wasn’t positive it was from this thing. “On My Own” and “Master of the House,” I had heard, but had no clue they were from this thing. Hell, I still don’t even know how to pronounce “miserables.” I know there’s an accent on there, but I don’t feel like typing it. In short, I am a novice. I make no apologies for this. Please accept it.
… I loved it. I cried multiple times, mostly when Anne Hathaway hit a grand slam with her rendition of The Song That Ruined Susan Boyle’s Life, but also many other times. The whole production was lovely and pretty and theatrical and romantic, and I loved it. I’m not claiming it was perfect, and I’ll get to that in a moment, but my first thought upon leaving the theater was one of complete joy.
I didn’t expect to love it as much as I did. I didn’t expect to be swept up by the movie magic and painting-like coloration of each frame and overabundance of Theater Acting as much as I did. But I let it happen, because that’s what you’re supposed to do during musicals. More than most art forms, musicals force their audiences to suspend their disbelief. No one breaks out in song in real life–or in the case of Les Mis, sings dialogue in-between songs–and I dare say that no one experiences tragedy or elation or any emotion on such an expressive, melodic level, but that’s the point. The songs are all so logged with emotion, the accompanying orchestra (again, suspending that disbelief!) swells at just the right time, the plot lines are all so simply and elegantly constructed that it’s impossible not to dive right in. Whereas regular movies develop character and complicate story through wit, timing, and editing, musicals do it purely through song. We don’t need to know any more about any of the characters than the words they sing to us and the expressions we see in the many close-ups of their emotive faces.
And oh, did they sing. The aforementioned Catwoman did some work. I’m not sure if she deserves the Oscar, per se, because she wasn’t actually in the movie for long, but her Fantine is as tragic as they come. Amanda Seyfried as Ol’ Cosette paled in comparison to Isabelle Allen, the real Cosette and the face of the ad campaign, but she still carried a decent tune. I found Seyfried’s suitor, Eddie Redmayne (Marius, duh), so charming that I actually felt bad I didn’t know who he was already. Turns out he’s been in a lot of stuff, and I’m dumb. The rest of his revolutionary cohorts, among them Aaron Tveit, were really impressive, too. Each had such a strong voice that it was hard to know where to focus as they sang “Red and Black,” my favorite number of the film. I also think Samantha Barks will get overshadowed by Hathaway, which is slightly unfortunate because Barks’ Eponine was understated and just as tragic. (Sidebar: Barks and Mila Kunis must play sisters in a future film. You’re welcome, Hollywood.)
Hugh Jackman was born to play Jean Valjean. I mean, seriously. It’s an odd and varied role, one that requires a lot of physicality and brutishness while also exuding a gentle, father-figure-like quality. Jackman has all of this, convincingly, as well as a magnetic stage presence. He seems like a jolly guy in general, but he was able to drop that when he needed to Make Shit Real. And even more props to him for facing Russell Crowe so many times. Because if I were as skilled in musical theater as Jackman, I wouldn’t have been able to deal with Crowe being cast as Javert. He looked like an intimidating fellow, sure, but the minute he opened his mouth to sing (and he had a lot of singing to do), I couldn’t take him seriously anymore. It’s fine that Crowe is not a great singer. It just means that he shouldn’t be cast in a damn singing role. I don’t care if he’s one of the greatest dramatic actors living today; you don’t see Jason Bateman being cast in musical comedies, either. I wish Javert had been played by someone equally formidable and sonically booming. John Travolta? Martin Short? For shit’s sake, I don’t know. Just someone else. Anyway, back to the praise. Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter! I was not expecting those two to appear, but the movie was even better for their three-named presences. They’ve both got larger-than-life personalities and yet, even though I think they held back a little in their roles as M & M Thenardier, they still gave the entire cast a comedic backbone. I hope they work together again.
I so wish I had seen this play, in any form, in high school. I admit I always found it difficult to get into the French Revolution, to have the desire to investigate the why behind all the 5 H’s I was learning for whatever exam I had coming up next. Seeing this would have sparked that desire, for sure, even if the details of the story in Les Mis are undeniably vague. It would have attached characters, emotions, images of suffering, some sort of litmus test for me, a person who at the time had never been overseas, much less delved into European History with any sort of fervor. I’m glad I saw it now, and I hope to see it again on stage. Maybe Patti LuPone is still game to play Fantine…