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Les Misérables (or Les Miz, as all the cool kids call it) has been one of my all-time favorite musicals, and my absolute favorite stage musical. From my first time at the West End Theater to my most recent viewing in DC, Les Miz stays just as relevant today as it did when Victor Hugo penned the original novel on which this musical is based. Known for it’s amazing set design, breathtaking musical numbers and gorgeous songs that are like earworms to the soul (okay, you try to get “At The End Of The Day” out of your head once it’s in there. Thought so.) Les Miz is pretty much tailor made for a sweeping, epic movie musical. Add on megawatt stars Hugh Jackman, Anne Hathaway, Russell Crowe and fannish heartthrob Eddie Redmayne (My Week With Marilyn), and it’s understandable that everyone — myself included — has been chomping at the bit to grab a seat at the local multiplex and get their French Revolution on.
But then. When director Tom Hooper (The King’s English) should pull away to show the awesomeness of the production, he instead focuses in on faces. Thanks, but as beautiful as Hugh Jackman is, I’d rather not count the hairs in his beard, thanks everso. It’s not that the entire film is shot at an eye-level close up, but it sure feels like it. Strangely, this served to not draw me closer to the characters, but to pull me out of the story altogether. It reminded me that I was indeed watching a film, rather than letting me become one with the people and places.
But let’s get into the pluses of the film, ‘cause there’s a lot of ‘em. First off, art direction, props and set design are off the hook y’all. This Les Miz is richly detailed, historically accurate — yes, there really was a huge plaster elephant in the middle of Paris — and paints a vivid picture of Parisian life at the time. All this painstaking detail is one of the reasons why I wish Hooper would have pulled away from his cast a bit more often. Because when he does go wide? It’s breathtaking.
Okay, onto the singing. It’s fantastic. It’s amazing. And it’s all done live, which means there’s no added track while the actors mouth the words. When the characters break into song, they’re really belting it out, and that makes a huge difference in the overall quality of the performances. In addition, forget what you’ve memorized from the original Broadway or London cast recordings (or the epic 10th Anniversary “Dream Concert” from 1995). This version has taken a more subdued tack with many of the songs. For example; the wonderfully bombastic karaoke staple “Stars”, which is Javert’s vow to pursue Valjean to the ends of the earth, is more of a meditation on right and wrong than a war cry. Crowe pulls off this interpretation seamlessly, and I went from pouting over the lack of rafter-rattling to awe at the ability of this movie to shed new light onto a much-loved song.
In fact, everyone here acquit themselves well, though if there’s one performer that should take the spotlight (and the Oscar, if there’s any justice in this world), it’s Anne Hathaway as the tubercular woman gone wrong, Fantine. Not only does she breathe new life into songs you thought you knew by heart, she gives a performance that is staggering in it’s complexity. You feel her heartbreak, sympathize with her plight, and understand her anger. Hugh Jackman’s Jean Valjean is just as brilliant, but Hathaway wins by a nose for her raw, unapologetic performance. Eddie Redmayne and Amanda Seydfried are wonderful as Marius and Cosette and no wonder, as they both have solid training in musical theater and opera respectively. Okay truth time, I did have a bit of a disconnect every time Seydfried would vibrato, and she does that a lot. Granted, the part of Cosette requires a helluva lot of high-octave singing that only a very talented first soprano can truly nail, but for some reason vibrato has me thinking of Snow White. I’ll chalk that up to live singing rather than a vocal track, and to my own personal preferences. Otherwise her performance is delightful and her singing is perfection. And yes I’m hating myself for using so many “critic adjectives” in this review, but honestly in this piece it’s warranted.
Oh, and God Bless the casting goddess Nina Gold. In this film adaptation Enjolras — the student who leads the revolutionaries at the barricades — is just as smokin’ as in any live theater performance. Granted, I’ve always thought of Enjolras as “The Sexy One”. Mostly because in every stage version in the history of ever, he is, but also because I have a bugger of a time trying to remember how to pronounce his name. Played by award-winning theater actor Aaron Tveit, he’s almost unrecognizable from his stint in Gossip Girl. And that’s a good thing y’all. PHWOAR. Which reminds me, there are many times in this Les Miz that mirror iconic visuals in the stage production. Thank you for giving us fans those shout-outs, movie making people.
So. Christmas Day. Your family is driving you nuts, or is too far away to hang out with. If you love you some Les Misérables, go. If you’ve never seen the musical live but always wanted to, do so. Buy tickets now. It’s lovely on the big screen, even if there are times when I’d rather focus on the action instead of the freckles on Eddie Redmanyne’s face.