I have written before about my extensive history with Les Miserables. It was The theater geek musical of my high school years, leading me to a pretty intimate knowledge of the sweeping musical’s ins and outs, its triumphs and- looking at it now from a more mature perspective- its failures. Needless to say, my breath became baited the moment I first saw the trailer for the long-awaited film version.
Quite frankly, I don’t believe it deserves a nomination for Best Picture. It was good. There were some wonderful performances and a few brilliantly poignant moments, but there is more to a Best Picture than acting and moments, especially when the script is handed to you as a proven success. Overall, despite all that was right about the movie, there were too many times when director Tom Hooper simply didn’t take advantage of the wonderful opportunities the medium of film offers over the limitations of the stage, and he seemed to have lost all of his creative juices in the process.
If you are unfamiliar with this musical adaptation of the massive Victor Hugo novel, it’s a story of faith and redemption that questions the idea of shallow, sharp distinctions between good and evil. The good guy, Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman), is an ex-con and a parole breaker who spends the entire musical running from the law. The “bad guy” is Javert (Russell Crowe), an incorruptible police officer who dedicates his life to capturing Valjean, despite the convict’s demonstrable embrace of all things good.
If nothing else, this central storyline should appeal to a Pagan audience. While the story is told through the filter of Catholicism, it clearly questions what truly qualifies as good and evil and advocates a view that coincides with the Law of Polarity: nothing is black and white; everything is grey. Sometimes breaking the rules is the right thing to do.
Of course, there is a lot more to Les Miz than that. For social activists, there is the story of the downtrodden rising up against their oppressors. This storyline hits hard on the dynamics of youth and their elders, questioning idealism in favor of the moderated wisdom of experience. For romantics, there is a classic love triangle subplot that forces young Marius to choose between a friend and a lover, his passion for his cause and his dreams for his future. Yet all of these plots seem to be rivers contributing to the overall “Is there such a thing as good or evil?” theme, which is a note that often resonates within the Pagan community.
So there is a lot to like here. Hugh Jackman fully deserves his nomination for Best Actor. Valjean is a role of extensive range; it requires a huge vocal range and a vast transition of character as the character transforms from prisoner to businessman to father to sick old man. We all knew Jackman could sing, but this role takes a special voice, and he has it.
Anne Hathaway’s nomination is also richly deserved. The role of Fantine doesn’t have as much range as that of Valjean, but she does sing one the show’s most popular numbers, “I Dreamed a Dream,” and her descent into destruction needs to be honest and believably complete. Hathaway does a wonderful job in this key role.
There are other spot-on performances. The somewhat infamous Sacha Baron Cohen was a brilliant choice for the thieving innkeeper Thernardier, and Helena Bonham Carter is the perfect match as his wife. This couple represents the movie’s much-needed comic relief. Unfortunately, some of their best shtick is directed out of the film, but what the duo is allowed hits the right combination of creepy and hilarious. Daniel Huttlestone is an adorably feisty little Gavroche.
But then there was what was wrong with the film. Let’s start with Russell Crowe. The man can act, and he looks great in his beautiful costumes as Javert moves up in rank over the years, but anyone with ears knows that he was not the right choice. His voice just isn’t up the demands of the music. This becomes clear in his first solo, “Stars.” The song ends with a long, emphatic note that, when properly sung, can send chills down your spine. Crowe’s rendition ends with a soft whimper, so much so that the scene just fades away, not even allowing him to finish the note. This pattern remains for each of his big endings, and each becomes an unsatisfying small ending.
There is so much you can do in a movie that you can’t do on stage. Camera angles can change, flashbacks can help tell the story, scenery can strike our heart and help us understand the setting. And Tom Hooper chose to take advantage of virtually none of that. Almost every solo is an extended extreme close up on the actor. We spend the entire song staring at the details of the actor’s/actress’ face when there is so much more a filmmaker could do with his medium. There is a sweet genuineness to the extreme honesty on each singer’s face, but it’s just too much. I’m much more well acquainted with the inside of Hugh Jackman’s mouth than I ever wanted to be.
The final sequence was a wonderful piece of filmmaking that had everything that these missed moments didn’t have. More of that, and I would be rooting for the movie to win.
One of the biggest advantages of Les Miz is the orchestra. Normally, the music is loud. It serves as just as much of a character as anyone on the stage. The rousing opening jolts you into sudden awareness, and from that point on the orchestra is ever present. However, in the film the music is so soft we barely notice it. The same opening that almost knocks you off your seat in the stage version is quiet and understated in the movie, and it never really rises to its full potential. That was a distinct waste of a good storytelling resource.
There are a lot of Oscar nominations that Les Miserables deserves. Costumes: Yes. Jackman and Hathaway: Yes. Makeup: Maybe. I liked the movie. I just don’t think that, taken as a whole, it fits as an overall example of excellent filmmaking.