|DREAM THE DREAM
|By MATT WINDMAN
In light of recent movie musicals like Nine and Rock of Ages that misfired on painfully spectacular levels, theater fans can be forgiven for approaching Tom Hooper’s film adaptation of the late 1980s Broadway musical juggernaut Les Misérables (hereinafter Les Miz), based on Victor Hugo’s 1862 novel depicting oppression and thwarted revolution in 19th-century France, with at least some degree of trepidation.
Les Miz was the finest of the 1980s mega-musicals produced by Cameron Mackintosh (also including Phantom of the Opera and Miss Saigon) that originated in London and went on to rake in big bucks on Broadway and all over the world. Having worked on one of the very first productions of Music Theatre International’s Les Miz: Student Edition, I can attest to the show’s strong hold over an audience.
All things considered, the film, which manages to be visually expensive one minute and emotionally intimate the next, is far better than anyone expected it to be. Unlike other recent movie musicals, which approached the act of breaking into song so tentatively as to suggest being embarrassed by musical theater as an art form, the film embraces the piece’s origins as a sweeping, sung-through, romantically sentimental musical.
Virtually the entire score has been preserved. While I was initially grateful to hear about this slavish treatment, on second thought, would it have been so terrible to get rid of some of the inferior songs, including but not limited to “A Heart Full of Love” (plus its reprise) or “Turning?” I also wonder if it might have made sense to axe all the recitative segments, especially since some spoken dialogue was already being added.
The songs are presented with the raw, untouched qualities of a live stage production. In the age of Glee, where seemingly all vocal performances are brushed up electronically, the singing in Les Miz was performed live on set. Emotional solos like “I Dreamed a Dream” and “On My Own” were filmed in single camera shots with no crosscutting. As such, the movie version of Les Miz brings you closer to the characters than any overpriced orchestra seat ever could.
In spite of a lame new solo for Valjean that serves no purpose (besides providing a candidate for the Oscar for Best Original Song), the film at times improves upon the stage musical, changing the placement of “I Dreamed a Dream” to make it more stirring (right after Fantine has sold her body for the first time), conveying Valjean’s extraordinary strength at his physical prime (single-handedly lifting a flagpole off the shore) and showing how the barricade was built out of ordinary household objects and how the young rebels were brutally outnumbered.
This film would probably not have happened were it not for Hugh Jackman, as no other major film star could have conceivably sung the role of Valjean, the convict who found God after 19 years in jail and then spent the rest of his days running from the law. He gives his strongest screen performance to date, showing off both his physical and vocal prowess.
Anne Hathaway, looking positively emaciated as the doomed Fantine, also proves to be convincing and powerfully moving. She gives the most fully fleshed, emotionally wrenching rendition of “I Dreamed a Dream” I’ve ever seen. Even if her singing is perhaps too unpolished for my taste, she is far better than Daphne Rubin-Vega, who played the role in the premature 2006 Broadway remount.
Russell Crowe gives a characteristically dour turn as Inspector Javert, stressing the character’s masochistic personality and strangely obsessive determination to capture Valjean. In spite of having apparently done a few stage musicals back in Sydney, Crowe can barely handle the score. His singing is not much better than Pierce Brosnan in the Mamma Mia! film. While I doubt any other film star could have done justice to the role vocally, would it have been so terrible to hire an unknown with singing chops? Too bad Jackman couldn’t have played both Valjean and Javert simultaneously.
The rest of the cast is filled out quite nicely, including but not limited to Amanda Seyfried’s pure Cossette (an admittedly dull role), Eddie Redmayne’s dreamy-eyed Marius, Aaron Tveit’s high-powered Enjolras, Sacha Baron Cohen’s appropriately hammy Thénardier and Helena Bonham Carter’s similarly colorful Madame Thénardier.
Plenty of stage actors make cameos. Fans of the stage version will be pleased to find Colm Wilkinson, the original Valjean, turn up in the vital role of the kind reverend who forgives Valjean for stealing the silver from his home and leads him to the righteous path. I also noticed Bertie Carvel, who will be starring in Matilda on Broadway this spring, as the lecherous gentleman who accuses Fantine of attacking him.
I have now seen Les Miz at both an industry-only advance screening and post-opening at a normal cinema. While the industry audience was rapt by the film and clapped after major production numbers, the other audience appeared to be far less interested, with some walking out and others laughing mockingly at some of the more awkward moments (in particular, Valjean approaching young Cosette in the woods).