Ah, “Les Miserables”, one of the most anticipated movies of the season for critics and one of the most anticipated movies of the year for me (second only to “The Avengers”). The film adaptation of the beloved musical takes risks that, for the most part, pay off. While it is not a perfect film, “Les Miserables” is one of those rare works that can be forgiven its flaws because the overall product is so strong.
What is most striking about “Les Miserables,” initially, is the art direction’s fidelity to gritty historical accuracy. The sets, costumes and makeup recreate 19th century France as authentically as can be imagined (visually, anyway). It counters the campy reputation that stylized ensemble numbers have earned the musical genre, however unfairly, and it grounds the film in reality therefore serving as a reminder that the societal issues addressed in the film were and still are relevant to our existing society.
The greatest departure “Les Miserables” takes from traditional musical filmmaking is its approach to singing. Director Tom Hooper’s decision to record the audio live has already been well publicized, and while I appreciate that the vocals lack the processed sound of a studio recording, it’s not the quality of the audio that interests me so much as the naturalistic approach the actors take to singing.
The characters inhabit a universe in which introspection and dialogue are conveyed almost exclusively through song and the strength and clarity of the singing varies depending on the emotion being expressed the way natural speech varies. When the characters are sad, their voices break; when they’re excited, they become breathless etc. In some respects, this is the film’s greatest strength. There are no sudden or awkward transitions from speech to song and it lends the musical aspect of the film an element of realism that I’ve never seen before in a movie.
The downside to allowing emotion to impact the quality of singing, however, is that, well, some of it doesn’t end up sounding that great. At times this is justified. Eddie Redmayne chokes up during “Empty Chairs At Empty Tables,” and Anne Hathaway succeeds in sounding like a dying TB case in “Come To Me” but, given the context of these songs, the audible emotion enhances the power of the scenes. The same cannot be said for “At the End of the Day” in which the factory workers gossip and squabble with Fantine in voices that lack diaphragmatic support but maintain the fairly high key used in the play. It’s painful to listen to and there is no reason for it.
I feel it’s important to draw a distinction between the mediocre vocals in “Les Miserables” and the mediocre vocals in other musical adaptations like “Sweeney Todd”. “Sweeney Todd” features actors with little to no singing experience delivering the songs to the best of their limited ability. The cast and ensemble of “Les Miserables,” by contrast, are comprised of actors who (with a few exceptions that I’ll get to in a moment) have the ability to belt out the songs the ways we’re used to hearing them but have, for select moments in the film, made a stylistic choice not to.
“Les Miserables” has a fairly strong cast. Hugh Jackman gives an admirable performance as Jean Valjean, though he needs to get his vibrato under control. Anne Hathaway deserves all of the Oscar buzz she is receiving for her truly moving performance as Fantine. Eddie Redmayne imbues the role of Marius, typically a character audiences love to hate, with sympathy and depth and displays a remarkable singing voice that no one knew he had. I was impressed that the studio was willing to cast an unknown like Samantha Barks as Eponine and she is absolutely wonderful as the street-smart unrequited lover, despite the cuts made to her character (the absence of her duet with Fantine during the Epilogue was sorely noted). Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter sing about as well as they did in “Sweeney Todd” but their characters are so whacky and enjoyable to watch that it doesn’t really matter. The weakest members of the cast are Russell Crowe and Amanda Seyfried. I just don’t understand how they made it into the film. Crowe sounds like he has a cold and Seyfried, as much as I want to like her, sings with a thin voice and a vibrato that sounds like it’s on fast forward. I refuse to believe that there were no actors better suited to play Javert and Cosette than those two.
Make no mistake, though, “Les Miserables” is a tremendous film. Some weak singing and a few poor casting choices aren’t enough to undermine the grim beauty and integrity of the overall movie. It’s easily one of the best musical films I’ve ever seen.