Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Our Resident Stage Buff Says This Is a Near Perfect Film Adaptation: Our Review of "Les Misérables" (2012)

Directed By: Tom Hooper (The King's Speech

Starring: Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, Eddie Redmayne, Amanda Seyfried, Anne Hathaway

Rating: PG-13 for suggestive and sexual material, violence and thematic elements

Run Time: 2 hours, 37 minutes

Synopsis: A film adaptation of the popular Broadway musical, based on Victor Hugo's novel of the same name, about ex-con and parolee fugitive Jean Valjean (Jackman) and his attempt to live a straight life raising an orphaned girl (Seyfried) while evading the tenacious Inspector Javert (Crow), with a conclusion set during the June Revolution in 1832 France.


Sarah: Hello readers! Yesterday Andrew and I joined the merry Christmas Day masses at the movie theatre to see one of the holiday’s most anticipated releases – Les Misérables, starring Hugh Jackman, Eddie Redmayne, Amanda Seyfriend, Anne Hathaway, Russell Crowe and a whole host of other characters to put on this French revolution musical. Les Mis is a film adaptation of the popular stage musical that has been running for 27 years now and is just an amazing show. It’s one of my favorites, and if you’ve never seen it on stage and get the chance, it’s one that you shouldn’t pass up on.

Anyway, Les Mis is directed by Tom Hooper, who won the Oscar for Best Director two years ago for The King’s Speech, which also won the Oscar for Best Picture, and Hooper’s new film has also been getting plenty of award season buzz. So Andrew, now that we’ve seen Les Misérables, what did you think?

Andrew: Well I’ve never seen any version of Les Mis before. I’ve never seen it on stage, I’ve never seen the Liam Neeson film version from the late nineties, nothing. I haven’t even read the book. So all I knew about the movie was from what you’ve told me about the play. I knew the basic idea and some of the characters, like Jean Valjean being an ex-convict, Inspector Javert tracking him down, Valjean’s relationship with Fantine and Cosette, etc.

Seriously, the extent of Andrew's Les Misérables knowledge pretty much started
and ends with knowing Amanda Seyfried plays the older version of Cosette,
the little girl in the poster above.

So going in to this I wasn’t so much intrigued by the plot as I was by the performances and how the music was going to be. Because the big key to this movie is that Tom Hooper took the radical step of recording the entire movie’s songs live on set instead of pre-recording them in studio and having the actors lip-sync to it on stage. So this was a risky move but I think it was the absolute correct one to make because the entire movie is ALL singing. There are maybe eight lines that aren’t sung…

S: And they’re short and usually in between words…

A: Exactly. So I thought it was the correct move because it just fits the movie. The actors completely buy into it. You get a feel for how they actually felt at the moment they acted that scene. If it had been pre-recorded, and again, 99.9% of this movie is sung, if it had been pre-recorded it just wouldn’t have felt the same. It would’ve felt canned and I don’t think it would have had nearly the emotional impact that it did on me.

S: This show’s story is incredibly emotional and if they had done the pre-recording I agree, I think it would have completely stripped the movie of that feeling, that emotion. I think it was Hugh Jackman that said if you pre-record the song, you have to make all of your acting decisions months before you actually film it. But by singing it live they got to be in the moment and be in the characters and bring a fragility to the screen that you would lose otherwise. Because let’s be honest, for the most part these are seasoned actors and give powerhouse performances in most films that they’re in, so it would have been easy to come at this with that full, star-power quality. But when you have the singing with the fragility of the storyline, you sort of lose the actor themselves and instead gain insight into the character they’re playing.

A: Absolutely. What’s great about them singing live on stage is…a great example I can think of is Valjean’s “What Have I Done?” sung towards the beginning, and Jackman said in a video we’ve watched about recording the singing live that he could play with it and do it in multiple different ways…

S: And I think he did, even in the take that ultimately made the movie!

A: Yes! And let’s add this: the way they recorded the songs was they had each actor wear a little earpiece where they could hear a pianist off-camera kind of playing the track for them to sing to. And actually, the singers kind of dictated the tempo they wanted to sing at depending on how they wanted to do the take.

S: Yeah, when you’re doing a show like this, a musical, usually the actors set the tone for the music. The music follows the singing, not vice versa.

A: And that was the case here, too.

S: Correct, which is how it’s supposed to be done. On stage, if it’s a good orchestra, they’re to follow what the actor on stage is doing. But if it had been canned, it basically would have been them singing along to a pre-recorded orchestra and it totally would’ve lost that.

A: But what I liked about it was you could tell some of the actors…where a fair number of the solo songs are one long, uninterrupted take…like Jackman can choose to pause and look like he’s thinking of something and then continue when he’s ready. More notably in Anne Hathaway’s show-stopping “I Dreamed a Dream,” her voice catches, she chokes up a bit and you can tell it’s not fake. It’s what actually happened while she was singing the song. Just the raw emotion of doing that is so much better than if it had been canned. So that’s what I liked most about this movie.

S: Good! I’m glad you liked it so much. I was a little concerned. I was actually surprised that they stuck so true to the actual stage version. The stage version is ALL singing. It’s basically an opera. When you think opera you think big sopranos and big voices, but that’s not what I mean. I mean it’s all singing in this movie, which is what operas are.

So I was pleasantly surprised, because I think if they had tried to add lines where there aren’t supposed to be any it would’ve been a detriment to the story. I don’t think I told you beforehand that it would be all singing, so what did you think of that?

A: I was a little surprised it was completely sung, but I think somewhere along the line I had read that that was the case. But even then, it doesn’t really hit you until you see it and Valjean and Javert are talking to each other through song. And it’s not even really just one song at a time, because one guy will be singing a certain melody and the other guy will be singing something completely different but they intertwine. So it’s an interesting way that they did it, but again I thought it was the absolute correct way to go about it.

Now, that said, the decision to do it that way and to sing everything live? The other component of that is that you can clearly tell that some of the actors are better singers than the others.

S: True. That’s heightened by the fact that there’s no reprieve for the audience from all the voices, too. Jackman has been performing on stage for a while, and I don’t believe that the way he sang showcased his voice very much, because he has a PHENOMENAL Broadway voice. But the way he played Jean Valjean…he doesn’t bring that powerhouse voice to the screen. He does it at moments, there are times when he belts it out, but he doesn’t sing that powerfully through the whole thing. Which is okay!

Hugh Jackman stars as former convict Jean Valjean in Tom Hooper's
new adaptation of Les Misérables
A: Well another thing to that, and we kind of discussed this coming out of the movie, to me I looked at Jackman as playing Valjean as a broken, older man; but also this is a movie, not a stage play, so they don’t have to project for the entire audience to hear. He can play it a little more intimately.

S: And he did. I think the only person that I had a little trouble with as far as voices go would be Russell Crowe, but I kind of guessed that going in. He can sing, but when we were talking about this movie with my parents yesterday, my father made a good point that Javert is supposed to be the most powerful male voice in the show, and Crowe isn’t that.

But he makes up for it with his acting, because we see a man who has become so consumed with finding this convict that really kind of made a fool of him, and it causes Javert to question his core belief that the law is the way to the Lord along with maintaining an honest life. So I felt like that made up for the fact that he was probably the weakest voice amongst all the leads.

A: He’s sort of a pit bull, isn’t he? He’s constantly trying to track down Valjean, and even later on in the film when Valjean gives him a reprieve, I thought Crowe did a great job portraying a main conflicted with his enemy’s motives.

S: And that was perfect because that’s how it’s supposed to come across. He’s being shown mercy and he doesn’t quite know what to do with it.

A: So I was okay with Crowe’s less than stellar voice. I mean, he’s actually not a bad singer, he’s just a different singer than everyone else. He’s actually released albums before as the front man for a couple of different bands, so he’s just a different style.

I had a little more trouble with – and don’t get me wrong, because he has a great voice – but I had a little more trouble with Marius, played by Eddie Redmayne, who has a more operatic voice that differed because everyone else played it as more of an intimate setting…

S: Right, and he certainly has more of an operatic voice. I loved his voice…

A: Don’t get me wrong, he has a great voice…

S: It just shows a difference, because obviously he has some skill, but it’s more of a classical style than a Broadway style. I mean…I liked that each actor kind of had a different feel. Amanda Seyfriend has a CRYSTAL clear soprano voice. I mean, like, it’s pure and amazing. We got to see some of her singing in Mamma Mia! and she’s by far the best singer in that movie, but she really gets to shine as far as her range in this one. It’s a thin voice, but it’s clear…

A: It works for film.

S: It does. So, taking a look at some of the other voices, Samantha Barks as Eponine does a fantastic job, and that’s to be expected because she played the role in a London production for a year before this…

A: What’s her solo song?

S: “On My Own.”

A: I was waiting for that song all movie long, because I knew it was from this musical, and they kind of teased it at points before she finally gets to sing it, and I was just like, “C’mon, just sing the fricking song!” because I actually really like that song! You’ve played it before on Pandora when we’ve driven across the country and I’ve really enjoyed it…

S: Me too, plus I’ve performed that song on stage before…

A: Which I wish I could have seen back in the day when you still acted. But yeah, Samantha Barks does a great job with it. In my opinion it’s the second best song in the show.

S: It’s a good one, but…

A: I mean as far as the solos go. I know you’re particularly fond of “Do You Hear the People Sing?”

S: Yeah, as far as solos go, “On My Own” is a really good one. It’s her shining moment and she nails it.

Ok, we’ve essentially talked about everybody else, but HANDS DOWN the person who will get the most love for this movie and absolutely deserves all the awards buzz she’s getting, is Anne Hathaway as Fantine. She knocked it out of the park. She not only has a beautiful singing voice, which we’ve known, but her portrayal of a woman at the bottom of the barrel…looking up and seeing no way out is…is just haunting. She does an amazing job.

And you think you’ve seen it, because it is in the trailers, but the final version of her singing “I Dreamed a Dream” in the film is NOT the one they show in the trailers. It’s not the final take, and it’s SO much more intimate in the movie. It’s just amazing.

A: It’s heartbreaking.

S: It’s absolutely heartbreaking.

A: It was heartbreaking to watch, and again, it goes back to choosing to record the song live on set. I remember watching a video where Anne Hathaway said she took not just one earpiece but two, and put one in each ear and shoved them down as far as they would go so she couldn’t hear herself, and then she just let the song consume her and she sang her heart out…

S: And it shows.

A: It’s absolutely raw and emotion, and when she cries while singing, which is tough enough to do, you’re just like, “Man…” It’s like you’re watching someone who isn’t acting at all. It’s transcendent. Her whole performance is transcendent.

Anne Hathaway nails it when her solo, "I Dreamed a Dream," comes around.
If any actor this year is a shoo-in for an Oscar, it's her.

S: I cried.

A: So did I. And it’s not even just that song, but the ones leading up to it, watching the decisions Fantine has to make to try and make money to send to Cosette, and then when she comes back later at the end with Valjean…

S: Oh that just kills me. It kills me every time. Oh my god.

A: That scene brought tears to my eyes again.

S: Yeah, and it’s supposed to. In the show she comes back as well, and it’s supposed to be heartbreaking, but happy. Oh man, yeah. That scene just kills ya.

A: And it’s Anne Hathaway’s performance in that scene, too. It’s something I’ve always liked about her is that she has these big brown eyes, these soulful eyes, and when Fantine comes back at the end she just really portrays a mother who’s been really appreciative of Valjean taking care of her baby for her. That just killed me.

But yeah, “I Dreamed a Dream,” if Jennifer Hudson can win an Oscar for Dreamgirls for essentially one song, Hathaway better do it as well. She was just amazing.

S: There has not been another performance this year, that we’ve seen and that I can think of, that can even come close. She nailed it.

A: It’s the highlight of the movie.

S: It really is.

A: Which is also one of the very few complaints I have of the movie; that “I Dreamed a Dream” is the highlight of the movie and it comes in the first act. The rest of the movie is really good, but is kind of dragged on for me.

S: It’s a long movie. And here’s the thing: Hooper could have easily cut stuff out. He could have chopped a couple of songs out if he had really wanted to, little interludes, etc. but he didn’t. It’s the whole show in its entirety.

A: But like the revolution takes a little long for me, and the aftermath of the revolution took a little long for me. It felt like there were multiple endings. It’s not a bad thing necessarily, but it did kind of lose its steam there towards the end for me.

S: “Do You Hear the People Sing?” is…because we can’t forget that musical is reliant on its ensemble, and they were amazing in this film. Even in the songs that needed to be fragile, they still held that full chorus sound. The first time “Do You Hear the People Sing?” is sung is beautiful and epic, but at the end when they all sing it, that’s what I was waiting for. The end is supposed to make you jump to your feet clapping and it did that for me. There was a moment of complete silence when the film ended, because I think the audience was a little shocked by the end. I’ve never heard such a quiet audience. And it was packed. So well done, audience.

A: Here’s my last point to talk about with you: what did you think of Hooper’s decision to shoot so much of the film, and especially solo songs, in medium or close up shots?

S: I didn’t mind it. I liked it, actually. Because when it’s on stage you do lose a little bit of the intimacy because there’s so much to look at, and Hooper brought that in closer for the movie. So I liked that. It was different than watching it on stage.

A: I’ve read some, not a whole lot, but some critics point out how tight the shots can be sometimes and whether or not they liked it, but I personally loved the decision. I liked having the actors fill up the screen, because again I loved the intimacy of the film that you might not get on stage, like singing a little more quietly or even whispering at times.

S: The scenes that needed to be shot wide were done that way. Like the barricade scenes, or the Thenardiers hotel, you’re supposed to see the set. Jean Valjean carrying Marius under the sewers? That’s directly from the show and so when they shot that the way they did I was just going, “Oh that’s awesome!!!”

The shots that needed to be medium to wide were, and he made everything else so intimate. And the sets were incredibly! Like the “Lovely Ladies” scene? What was cool about it is that it felt like a stage…

A: But it didn’t at the same time. The costumes were great, the sets were great…

S: There is just so much about this movie that I think will get Oscar love, and for good reason. It’s a great movie. Yeah, this will definitely be in the running for Best Picture. So final thoughts on Les Misérables?

A: It’s an excellent musical and I can see why it’s so beloved on the stage, though the fact it’s sung all the way throughout may not be for everyone. Strong performance throughout, even if Helena Bonham Carter, Sacha Baron Cohen and Russell Crowe aren’t the strongest singers. It’s a definite must-see on the big screen, if only to see why Anne Hathaway should walk away with a little golden man this spring.

FINAL VERDICT: A movie that we’ll definitely own one day!

(Individual Scores - S: 5/5  A: 4.5/5)


  1. This is an amazing flick and one that held a total power over me for the whole 2 hours and 38 minutes it was alive on-screen. One of the best of the year and a soundtrack, that I really hope to own soon, someday. Nice review.