Film Review: LES MISÉRABLES
Views [post_view] Starring Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, Anne Hathaway, Amanda Seyfried, Eddie Redmayne, Aaron Tveit, Samantha Barks, Sacha Baron Cohen, Helena Bonham Carter, Isabelle Allen and Daniel Huttlestone
Adapted from the original stage musical by Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schonberg; Lyrics by Herbert Kretzmer
Screenplay by William Nicholson, Alain Boublil, Claude-Michel Schonberg and Herbert Kretzmer
Based on the book by Victor Hugo
Original stage musical produced by Cameron Mackintosh
Film produced by Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner, Debra Hayward and Cameron Mackintosh
Directed by Tom Hooper
“Les Miserables,” the beautiful, moving, stirring, emotional and epic stage musical that has become the world’s longest-running stage musical, literally one of the most popular stage plays and musicals of all time, and a worldwide phenomenon seen by more than 60 million people in 42 countries and 21 languages, first opened on the London stage in October, 1985, and in the ensuing 27 years, there were several plans for a film version of the musical, but various plans fell by the wayside, various people dropped in and out, and various producers and directors and discussions and public zeitgeists came and went. But with the equally rousing, stirring and popular success of “Chicago,” the success of several other modern-day film musicals, and a social encounter and subsequent meetings between producers Tim Bevan and Eric Fellner and Nicholas Allott, the managing director of the production company operated by original “Les Mis” stage musical producer Cameron Mackintosh, the latest plans to film the musical started up again several years ago—fortunately for all of us.
Fortunately, because those latest plans to film the enduring musical by Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schonberg, with lyrics by Herbert Kretzmer, have resulted in a film version of “Les Miserables” that simply soars, from the powerful first notes of “Look Down” to the emotional, tear-inducing last notes of “Take My Hand” and “Do You Hear the People Sing?” and if you’re one of the tens of millions who have loved this classic stage musical on stage, you will also love the film version, which is an instant classic, one of the best films of the year, and, instantly, one of the great film musicals. Hugh Jackman delivers the performance of a lifetime as the anguished, saintly Jean Valjean, and the beautiful, stirring and memorable songs—of course, there’s not a filler tune in the entire hit-filled songbook—are all sung live on the set, which is a rarity for filmed musicals and one of many myriad reasons why this film succeeds so well in so many ways.
“Les Miserables,” produced by Bevan, Fellner, Debra Hayward and Mackintosh—that last name is yet another important factor why the film succeeds so well—and confidently, assuredly and captivatingly directed by Tom Hooper (“The King’s Speech”) is beautifully and lavishly produced, strongly directed, brilliantly photographed and paced, and expertly, emotionally sung and acted by a cast that clearly and obviously put their hearts, souls—and voices—on the line to deliver the required high level of emotion, characterization, character development and acting that is needed to match Boublil and Schonberg’s classic high level of quality in the music, lyrics, story, characters and orchestration. Jackman, as noted, steals the film as the haunted, sympathetic Valjean, a man who only means to do good in his life but cannot seem to escape small remnants of his past that continue to dog him, haunt him and impede his life—a classic character and character’s story anchoring what starts as a story involving a group of characters in early-1800s France but explodes and expands into a story about nothing less than life-changing and life-affirming themes and issues of revolution, freedom, sacrifice, war and love. Russell Crowe surprises everyone—although in fact he did indeed have a past in musical theater—as Javert, Amanda Seyfried is lovely and beautiful as Cosette, Anne Hathaway (another revelation, although it’s interesting to note she, like Crowe, also has an active singing and stage background) is Fontine in a fearless and gutsy performance, and, for comic relief, Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter are well-cast as the slimy, bawdy and devious pocket-picking, conniving innkeepers, the Thenardiers. They are all working at full power—as they have to in this play and film–and you can see the blood, sweat and tears pouring out from their energized, fully-dedicated performances.
Twenty-seven years may have passed from that first London stage production in 1985 to the Christmas Day release of the film version in 2012, but the quality of the production remains as fresh, lively, soul-stirring and emotional as ever, and what an overall achievement that remains. Several smart, savvy decisions contributed to keeping the quality intact for the film.
First, as noted, the actors actually sung the songs live, on the set, while the cameras were rolling, and it was these live, on-set performances that were actually, really used in the final film that lands in theaters. That means that the actors did not simply sing, or lip-synch, on the set and then have their singing over-dubbed later with too-clean, too-polished, off-set studio renditions—which has, to the surprise of many filmgoers through the years, actually been the standard operating procedure for film musicals. And, sorry to burst some bubbles, but for many film musicals through the years, that person singing on screen is not the person who you are watching “sing” on screen. Many actors have had their singing over-dubbed by other singers in many film musicals. And, again, just about all singing in film musicals for decades was over-dubbed later by studio versions. So to actually have the actors sing live on the set and then actually use those live, on-set singing performances in the final film is actually a novel approach, a rare approach—but at the same time, in this instance, a brilliant, canny, intelligent and creative approach that succeeds in a way that few other film musicals have succeeded.
Why does using the live singing in the final film produce such incredible results? Because it’s real—real singing, of course, but also what you get is real emotion, real acting, real in-the-moment singing that translates to in-the-moment acting, emotion, give-and-take and chemistry and feeling on the set. And when you get a novel, elevated level of emotion on a set due to an extra, added component such as actual, live singing—which the actors know will be eventually used in the final product—everything is elevated. How you stand, how you walk, how you emote, your facial expression, your breathing, your energy, how you sing in relation to your surroundings—all change when the actors in a film musical are performing live singing. Now, some observers may cynically note “Well, actors sing live on stage eight days a week for months at a time, so what’s the difference?” That may seem like a fair question at first glance, but it’s not—as so many people need to be constantly reminded, film is film and stage is stage and a book is a book—they are all different mediums, and they are all creatively produced and directed and written in different ways. A film requires actors to perform their lines—and their songs—and their blocking numerous times, not just to get the best shot and best performance, but because of the need to film different camera angles, different sound recordings, different lighting designs, and different blocking requirements. So that means that an actor in a film musical may have to sing their songs numerous times, over and over again, for days on end—and that is, indeed, something that can be quite difficult, demanding and different. Also, actors are filmed, or photographed, lit, miked and blocked in numerous different ways than they are on stage—there are no close-ups on stage, there are no expansive, wide-angle, huge set-piece sequences on stage like there are on film.
Hooper, Mackintosh, Boublil, Schonberg, Kretzmer and the producers knew this going forward, from the start, of course. But it was largely Hooper’s smart insistence that the singing be done live for the finished film that kept everyone in shape, on their toes—and performing at such a high level. All of the main actors, in numerous interviews, have praised this one basic decision for contributing to the high level of quality in the final film. Hooper and Mackintosh and others have noted that singing live can be so real, other factors may show up—they have all noted that in an early scene, Jackman is singing outdoors, on a mountain—a real, actual biology-based and geology-based mountain, not a computer-generated mountain—and the air is thin, Jackman is slightly out of breath, and breathing in a different manner, and you can tell—slightly—that he is fighting the altitude, but Jackman, like any professional trouper, bravely soldiers, thin air be damned, and sings the song with an extremely high level of power and emotion, and because of the entire naturalness and natural quality of the scene, the moment shines, like all the other moments do thereafter.
Another major factor in the film’s success was an early, common-sense intelligent decision to have the original creative team—Mackintosh, Boublil, Schonberg and Kretzmer—not only actively involved in the creation of the film, but also actively involved in the very-hands-on writing, performing, molding and production of the film— in the conference room and on the set. There is unfortunately too much film history in which original creators of stage plays and stage musicals were oddly, weirdly—and dumbly, sometimes—shut out, in a manner, from the film production of their own works. This occurs more often with filmed versions of books and dramatic plays and television shows, but it’s been considered an odd, weird move to shut out the creators of the original musicals when it comes time to film because of the very personal nature of crafting songs, stories that weave around songs, and because of the very basic elemental personal structure of an original stage musical. But, again, in this instance, no one had to worry about any of that, and the ensuing, attached psychological, business and creative problems that occur from shutting out the original creators.
It was a filmic and production decision to actively include and involve Mackintosh (well, let’s face it, that was going to have to happen no matter what, since he is the producer of the show at all levels, legally!) and Boublil, Schonberg and Kretzmer, and congrats and kudos to all involved for making this happen. The reason this contributes to a successful film is that the actors were literally inspired on the set by the very real working presence of the show’s creators, you had no weird distance in creativity from the original to the film, you kept the original quality of the stage in the film because the stage creators were right there to contribute, suggest, opine, meld, mold and inspire, and because they even, like the best pros, brought a few—but not too many, mind you—new ideas to the proceedings. But don’t worry—the film is not a big “change” production, in which suddenly, stupidly everyone thought they had to change everything for some reason just because it’s a new, filmic project. There are changes to the film—but rest assured, rest very assuredly, that the changes are slight. There are a few tweaks to the dialogue and some lyrics—don’t worry, it’s so minor, you can barely tell and it does not affect the production—and there is an addition of just one song, “Suddenly.” And it’s great to report that the new song rests at the same high level of melodic, rhythmic and hook-filled level of quality as the parade of hits that populate the rest of the show.
The actors, again, in interviews have praised the active inclusion and presence on the set of Mackintosh, Boublil, Schonberg and Kretzmer as inspirations for performing at a high level. And who wouldn’t be inspired? There’s nothing like lighting a fire under a performer’s feet as having the original writer, producer, director, lyricist and music writer present in the production or present on the set to get you to perform at a high level.
Yet another novel, interesting factor that contributes to “Les Miserables” high quality is that Hooper insisted that all the lead performers audition for their roles—including Jackman, Crowe, Hathaway, Seyfried and all the others. Why? Because if there’s one thing you learn in show business, one of the great equalizers in terms of keeping people grounded, down-to-earth, realistic and real is that horrendous, horrifying process known as the audition. Until you’ve been on some very scary auditions, it’s difficult to explain, but for those not in show business, just think of job interviews as a good analogy. Because auditions are indeed job interviews—albeit, job interviews that involve acting, singing, reciting lines, performing in front of a camera or on stage, reciting a monologue, or, sometimes, even participating in some off-the-cuff improvisation.
So having performers as accomplished as Jackman, Crowe, Hathaway and Seyfried actually be required to come in and audition—and these were real auditions, by the way—is humbling, down-to-earth, and they provided the performers with an underlying reminder that they are not really divas, they are certainly not the only people on earth who can perform these roles (although all shine in the film), and that they, too, must still pay their dues to be in a film such as this. Once again, all the actors have noted in interviews that this humbling process made them even more hungry to excel in their performances, more appreciative of the opportunity once they got cast, and more apt to show up and deliver and perform at above-average levels.
The story of “Les Miserable” is so well-known, it seems an exercise in unnecessary repetition to repeat it in full, but for the newcomers and for those who may have forgotten, Victor Hugo’s epic story—and it is epic, so that’s not a clichéd use of that word—spans twenty years in the life of Jean Valjean, who starts out in the story as a convict (who was sentenced to an unfair prison term), is released, is almost arrested again while out on parole, is given a wondrous second chance in life by an understanding bishop (look closely at who portrays the bishop in the film!), and subsequently re-invents himself as the mayor of a small town. Through circumstance and fate, Valjean is introduced to Fantine, a beautiful but troubled young woman who works at his factory but it soon an outcast like Valjean once was. Valjean commits to eventually looking after Fantine’s daughter, Cosette (a fetching, too-cute-for-words Isabelle Allen plays the young Cosette, whose solo “Castle in the Cloud” will have you reaching for the tissues early), when Fantine dies (that is not a spoiler, as that is well-known in the story). But while Valjean only wants to care for Cosette and live an honorable life, complications continually interrupt his life, and the complications continue to multiply, as well, adding layers to the story that provide the epic story-scape. Valjean is doggedly, almost obsessively pursued through the years by the gruff, rough policeman Javert, who wants to arrest Valjean and throw him back in prison. But Valjean has pledged to look after Cosette. That is complicated when Cosette and a young revolutionary, Marius (a powerful, young Eddie Redmayne) fall in love at first sight, and that romance eventually draws Valjean into a rowdy, rough-and-tumble revolution against an oppressive national regime. Valjean must deal with his lifelong commitment to looking after Cosette, to his involvement in a dangerous, life-threatening revolution, to keeping the dogged Javert at bay, and to coming to terms with who he really is, what his life means, and how all of these elements must eventually come together.
“Les Miserables” is indeed full of characters and story and plots and subplots, but to everyone’s credit—starting with Hugo—the story remains compelling and involved and interesting throughout, as the many characters, ranging in age from the young, impish Gavroche (touchingly played by the also-too-cute-for-words Daniel Huttlestone) to the elderly bishop, are sympathetically written and portrayed, and, as with any successful story, play or film, the viewer is drawn into the action because—a rarity in too many modern films—you actually care about these people. You care about them very much, and you care about their cause, which, again, is nothing less than love, revolution, freedom and honor. You have to admire people for fighting for freedom, and for the will to put their lives on the line for what they believe in.
The production design, set design, art direction, editing and costume design wonderfully and artistically capture the period of early 1800s urban France, and all that that includes—from the regal beauty of the bishop’s church to the terrifying, poverty-filled inner-city streets to the rough-and-tumble, youthfully-energetic village barricade built by the young revolutionaries to the apartments, inns, homes, streets and even sewers of the time. All are portrayed with extremely lush, colorful, lively production values that enliven the screen. The film is beautifully photographed and lit, and there are scenes of beauty that accurately convey the required mood, from the ugliness of the gloomy, crime-filled streets to the naturalness of the revolutionaries’ neighborhood to the riches and spoils of the upper classes.
And, of course, there are the classic, masterful songs and lyrics by Boublil, Schonberg and Kretzmer—songs that are not only chock-full of memorable melodies, chords, hooks and recurring musical themes, but songs that tell individual stories within each song, songs that naturally tell the over-arching story of the play and film, songs that move the play and the film forward energetically, symbolically and musically, and songs that connect directly to the individual characters’ individual stories, plights, circumstances and motivations. To do this with so many songs and so many characters is really nothing short of brilliance and musical theater genius. That’s not over-stating the case. The book and score for “Les Miserables” is brilliant. To provide just a partial list of the songs is evidence enough to back up that claim: “Look Down,” “What Have I Done?” “At the End of the Day,” “Lovely Ladies,” “I Dreamed a Dream,” “Who Am I?” “Castle on a Cloud,” “Master of the House,” “Stars,” “Red and Black,” “In My Life,” “One Day More,” “Drink With Me,” “Bring Him Home,” “Little People,” “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables,” “Take My Hand” and “Do You Hear the People Sing?”
Listen to those songs, realize how they connect to their respective characters, understand how and why they move the story forward, and instantly be moved by their lyrical and musical emotion and melodic quality, and you realize and understand the absolute largest, most comprehensive and most complete reason why and how “Les Miserables” is such a successful stage musical and film musical. When you have that many songs with so much melody and rhythm and musical quality, and so many songs that apply directly to the story and the characters singing them, there’s really not much more you need to say in explaining why and how the play and film succeed.
And, in the end, which with any great production seems to come too soon, “Les Miserables” is life-affirming, uplifting and hopeful. You leave the stage play and the film full of strength and optimism and hope—hope for the future, and hope for people to be free the world over. One of the many messages of the book, stage musical and film is that there is always a need for humanity to fight for freedom, to fight for love, to dream a dream, to fight one day more, to hear the people sing–and to fight to the death to protect the ones who you love.