Guys, Seriously…Les Miserables is a Musical

I was reading some user reviews for Les Misérables out of sheer curiosity when I stumbled across a true gem. One reviewer had written that there was “too much singing in this movie.” Yes, that’s exactly what they said. ABOUT A MUSICAL MOVIE. And now I’ll let Helena Bonham Carter as Madame Thenardier show you my reaction to that statement…

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Moviegoers, please take heed. I can’t believe I even have to say this (as it should be common knowledge), but if a movie is a musical, there’s going to be f***ing singing. I don’t want to hear you complain about how there was “too much singing” when you’re the genius who chose to see a musical movie. Yes, Les Misérables is slightly different than most musicals in that there are barely any spoken lines, but again…IT’S A MUSICAL. You should expect singing more than lines. And if you can’t keep up with singing or don’t particularly like singing, then don’t go see a musical movie.

Now that I’ve bitched about that little beacon of stupidity, let’s talk about Les Misérables! As you may (or may not) know, Les Misérables was originally a novel in 1862 by French author Victor Hugo, who also wrote The Hunchback of Notre-Dame. If you’ve read either of those books, you’ll know that Hugo has a knack for writing some of the most depressing stories ever. Les Misérables (which means “the miserable” in French, if you couldn’t tell) is set in 19th-century France during the time of the second French Revolution. Yes, there were two. The first revolution occurred when Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette were beheaded because people were pissed that they were spending so much money (Ironically, most of that money was going to aid the American colonies against the British during the American Revolution).

After the first revolution, the French people suffered under the dictatorship of Maximilien Robespierre (Best name ever, right?) and the empire of Napoleon Bonaparte. And then after Napoleon was exiled, the “July Monarchy” assumed power with King Louis Philippe, and the people were pissed again because kings never seem to work out (I apologize if I totally botched the French history here. I was just trying to sum it up quickly because it’s a long-ass story). Enter the timeline for the fictional Les Misérables. Now, the musical, itself, was written and produced for the stage first in France in 1980, but then eventually it was given an English libretto and set on the British stage in 1985. The musical was initially received poorly, but surprise! That changed.

Here’s how Universal describes the plot: “Set against the backdrop of 19th-century France, Les Misérables tells an enthralling story of broken dreams and unrequited love, passion, sacrifice, and redemption—a timeless testament to the survival of the human spirit. Hugh Jackman plays ex-prisoner Jean Valjean, hunted for decades by the ruthless policeman Javert (Russell Crowe) after he breaks parole. When Valjean agrees to care for factory worker Fantine’s (Anne Hathaway) young daughter, Cosette, their lives change forever.”

It should come as no surprise that Hugh Jackman and Anne Hathaway are the shining stars in this movie. Jackman obviously takes on the larger role as Jean Valjean, the story’s main character, who is released from prison into parole, which he escapes in order to start a new life for himself. Certainly, there was a lot of emotional transition for Jackman with this storyline, but what was almost more impressive was his physical transformation as Valjean. At the beginning of the film, he is scrawny and scraggly; as he starts a new life, he is brawny and handsome; and toward the end of the film (and that of Valjean’s life), he is weary and old. No doubt this was due to weight loss and gain, makeup, and costuming. Still, for once, I felt like I was actually seeing a character change and age with the movie’s progression.

Another thing with which I was pleased was that Valjean’s scenes with Cosette (Amanda Seyfried) seemed fatherly and not creepy. Obviously, since Valjean isn’t Cosette’s biological father, he has to quickly learn how to become a father to her when he adopts and takes care of her after her mother, Fantine (Anne Hathaway), dies. Some actors in the musical and movie versions end up portraying Valjean in an accidentally possessive and (I don’t want to say, but it’s kind of a) pervy manner, which I think Jackman managed to avoid.

Above all, it will be Jackman’s singing that will keep him in league with Lincoln’s Daniel Day Lewis during awards season. Valjean’s soliloquy in the Bishop’s home was everything a soliloquy of starting one’s life over should be—gracious, confused, angered, lonely, and determined. Already, he has Screen Actors Guild and Golden Globe nominations for Best Actor, and he is a possible (if not already solid) contender for a Best Actor Oscar nomination.

Similarly, Anne Hathaway has pulled down Best Supporting Actress nominations for her role as Fantine, a young woman who is thrown out of her factory job and has to sell her hair, teeth, and body to support her daughter, Cosette. Although the role of Fantine is much smaller than that of Jackman’s Valjean and even Russell Crowe’s Javert, Hathaway has been pimping out her extreme preparation for the role in order to win the nominations. Sure, she lost a shit ton of weight and volunteered to have her own hair cut (à la Natalie Portman in V for Vendetta).

But unlike with Jackman, I think too much focus on Fantine’s physical appearance draws away from the truly heartbreaking performance Hathaway gives, especially since she is only in the movie for a good 30 minutes (if that). Fantine’s tale is not of struggle and regain. It’s only of continuous loss and the destruction of all hope. Watching Fantine’s hair get cut and teeth get pulled was not nearly as saddening as watching her have sex for money and then break out into “I Dreamed a Dream,” where she reflects on days when men were kind and love still existed. Her version of that song was all I could’ve ever wanted and then some. It’s pretty and biting all at the same time—not to mention it drew half of my theater into tears (Yes, I heard you blubbering babies sniffling). I’m thinking she’s a sure win for the Best Supporting Actress, unless she continues to overexpose her weight loss and haircut in all of her Oscar campaign interviews.

One of the most common things I heard from people who’d seen the movie before me was that Russell Crowe is terrible as Javert because he’s not that good of a singer. Maybe it’s just me, but I didn’t necessarily think he sounded terrible. First of all, I base my judgments of actors singing in a musical movie on a scale of amazing to Pierce Brosnan’s performance in Mamma Mia. Pierce Brosnan is about as bad as you can get in my eyes. And in comparison, Crowe was leagues better. Yes, he was a weak link in a movie with much more developed singers, but the point was that he wasn’t supposed to overshadow Hugh Jackman or Anne Hathaway, who are the ones campaigning hard for the award nominations. I will admit that Crowe’s singing in the first scene with “Look Down” was not good. But it’s completely forgivable when you listen to “Stars,” which I thought was beautiful (I’ve actually listened to that song more on my iPod than the others from this movie). I guess what I’m saying is give Russell Crowe a break (before he punches you).

As for the other supporting roles, I think Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen were hilarious as the sticky-fingered and cruel Thenardiers, who are Eponine’s parents and younger Cosette’s caretakers. If it wasn’t for the Thenardiers in this musical, there would be zero humor. So their occasional appearances beyond the “Master of the House” scene were refreshing and provided a good laugh in the middle of heavier melodrama. Amanda Seyfried, who played the older Cosette, always looks beautiful and sings well, but her acting part is small, so we don’t get a lot of depth from her performance.

Surprisingly for me, the actress I’m most disappointed with is Samantha Barks, who played Eponine. She had a great voice, but her performance was forgettable, which is not supposed to happen when her character is trying to convince the audience that she’s heartbroken and ignored. I know other people won’t think so just because she sings one of the most famous songs (“On My Own”) from the musical, but I thought even that performance was lackluster.

Honestly, what I remember more about her portrayal of Eponine was how tiny her goddamn waist was with that belt around her dress. Eddie Redmayne was convincing as Marius—in fact, if I would’ve cried in this movie, it would’ve been during “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables”—but I was extremely distracted by the way he moves his jaw up and down to get his vibrato. Most vocal teachers will tell you that’s a no-no, as you can create vibrato without even moving your jaw (It’s all about air distribution and pitch variation). Also, very quick mention of the lesser-known Aaron Tveit, who played revolutionary leader Enjolras…HOLY SHIT, what a voice!

Something else I’ve heard from other reviewers is a disappointment in the lack of French accents, which I think is slightly ridiculous in a movie with barely any spoken lines. But for those that actually did speak without song, you will notice they used British accents. And actually, this is the norm for most movies set in a foreign land being acted in English, as many of the actors are either British or Australian (For example, Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette had all of the French characters speak with British accents while Kirsten Dunst, who played the title character, spoke with her normal American accent in order to distinguish the Austrian-born Marie Antoinette from the French court). Though this was true of the majority of actors in Les Misérables, Sacha Baron Cohen (who is British), attempted a French accent. Although I appreciate his effort, his fake French accent actually became a weird combination of his previous characters, Borat and Talladega Night‘s Jean Girhard.

What you might not know about Tom Hooper’s Les Misérables is that, rather than lip-syncing to previously recorded music, all of the actors in this movie sang on the sets and soundstages with nothing but the help of an accompanist (The orchestral score was layered over their singing in post-production). While some reviewers have complained that this style makes the singing in the movie sound less than perfect, I thought it was beautifully raw. By making his actors sing onstage without the help of Auto-Tune (the coddling of which clearly failed Carly Rae Jepsen during her live New Year’s Rockin’ Eve performance), Tom Hooper was able to draw real and truly emotional performances from his actors.

If the actors were singing and running at the same time, they were out of breath. If they were singing and crying at the same time, their voices cracked with their emotions. You know, they sounded just like real people would sound if they were singing songs of how their dreams were crushed by life (Hint: Very sad). If anything, this style of singing was actually reminiscent of the Broadway performers who initially brought Victor Hugo’s novel into the musical stage world. Personally, I prefer this style of singing in a musical movie because it requires the casting director to actually find actors who can sing better than those with corrected voices.

I’m not sure what to think of Tom Hooper’s overall direction and style for this movie. On the one hand, the wide shots of the city with the clear distinction of the social classes and their living conditions in both costume and set design was brilliant. I wouldn’t be surprised if there were some nominations for costume and cinematography coming for Les Misérables. On the other hand, while the close-up camera angles were really efficient at keeping the audience’s eyes on the character singing, as well as placing the audience in a bubble of that particular character’s emotion in that moment, the close-ups were often ruined by shaking handheld camera work and unchanging positions for long periods of time, which seemed almost amateurish—especially for Hooper, who is a previous Academy Award winner for Best Director.

Because of this direction, I understand why he was not nominated for a Best Director spot in the upcoming Screen Actors Guild and Golden Globe awards. Then again, what I see as a falter in good direction will go completely unnoticed by most, as they probably weren’t paying attention to the camera work; and on top of that, this camera work certainly isn’t enough to spoil a really good movie.

Overall, Tom Hooper’s Les Misérables is a musical movie that does justice to Victor Hugo’s 1862 novel and its melodramatic Broadway predecessor. Not to mention, the direction style of having the actors sing live on the set could very well become the new norm for musical movies. Hugh Jackman and Anne Hathaway give the performances of their careers, winning them award nominations from the Screen Actors Guild and Golden Globes (and possibly the Oscars down the road), while Russell Crowe, Amanda Seyfried, Samantha Barks, and Eddie Redmayne put in great but not necessarily astounding supporting performances. The costumes, makeup, and set design are beautiful and depressing all at once as they illustrate the deep political and social issues covered in the Les Misérables story; however, they are, at times, not properly showcased with Hooper’s reliance on close-ups.

But despite a few minor mishaps from the director and the actors, Les Misérables is worthy of its award nominations. Jackman will certainly be a close runner-up if not a winner in the Best Actor race (though he has sturdy competition in Lincoln‘s Daniel Day Lewis); Hathaway will most likely scoop up the Best Supporting Actress wins; and the movie, itself, is a clear contender for the Best Picture win, though it, too, has extremely fierce competition from Lincoln, Argo, and Silver Linings Playbook.

Les Miserables: A

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