My Cinema

27 December 2012

Les Miserables on Film

By // Cinema

Les-Miserables-5654-600x368There are few feats of artistic creation more stunning than the stage musical version of Les Miserables. From Hugo’s thrilling original storytelling and Schönberg & Boublil’s adapted musical book, to the way that Schönberg’s stunning melodies circle thematically back on themselves to the lush orchestrations and groundbreaking rotating-stage direction, iconic costumes, and hundreds upon hundreds of Broadway and the West End’s finest performers lending their voices and acting chops to some of the most demanding classically influenced vocals and dramatic requirements in theatrical history. Les Mis is, simply, incomparable.

The trouble with incomparable is that when you try to mess with it there can be hell to pay. As much as I’ve always wanted a film adaptation of Les Mis to put on my shelf alongside the plethora of mediocre (Rent), terrible (The Phantom of the Opera), and sometimes great (Chicago) stage-to-screen musicals already out there, as more and more information and scenes from the completed film found their way online the more I worried that this had all been a terrible mistake.

article-2132077-12A9F83E000005DC-613_634x427 Les Mis is hallowed ground for me- I first saw it when I was nine, I was singing “On My Own” by heart even before that (no, I don’t know why all young girls love Eponine and hate Cosette; yes, I too find it concerning), Les Mis is the only score I know better than “Happy Birthday” (sorry, Mildred and Patty Hill, you are no Schönbergs)- and I will always love it unconditionally. The result of such life-long devotion is that, when I finally got to see the film, I noticed every single note Russell Crowe sang just a little sharp, every time a lyric was changed or a song bumped back in the lineup a few spots (which happened far more than I was prepared for). The film was ripe for nitpicking and an easy target in a lot of ways, from Tom Hooper’s bonkers camera direction to a handful of baffling text changes to some pieces of infuriating casting (here’s looking at you, Crowe). Ultimately, Schönberg & Boublil won the day and Les Miserables survived adaptation, mostly on its own merits. There are even a couple of moments the film does better than the play, but just a couple. Most of the things wrong with the film- and they are glaring- lie in the direction, bad casting, and the film’s awards bait desperation; the reason everything else succeeds is mostly on the backs of Victor Hugo, Alain Boublil, and, mostly, Claude-Michel Schönberg who created this piece that the cast and crew then ran with. There are some smart ideas in the film’s production that allow for its altogether-pretty-good-ness, but it gets by on that fantastic source material, the stuff that made me- no matter how skeptical or discontented- want to join in the rousing “Do You Hear the People Sing” encore that closes the show.

Now for the details. What was great? What was horrendous? And does this thing really deserve all the Oscars it’s going to win?

les-miserables-still-les-miserables-2012-movie-32902249-1280-980Well, the costumes and makeup departments certainly deserve their credit for incredibly detailed work (even if some things like Russell Crowe’s hats and just about everyone’s hair bothered me to no end- Mme. Thenardier looks fully designed by Helena Bonham Carter, which is not a compliment, Fantine sports perfectly coiffed modern waves at the beginning, poor Aaron Tveit’s got the ugliest wig I’ve ever seen, and Eddie Redmayne is styled as Marius-via-One Direction). The set design and dressing team also deserve props (pun very much intended). The world building in the film is really strong- bolstered by an expert ensemble of minor character actors and extras, many of whom are veterans of the stage production and most of whom do wonders with scenes dropped by the movie stars who are supposed to be carrying them (Michael Jibson as the factory foreman and the ensemble of barricade boys are particularly good, including George Blagden’s standout Grantaire)- and only one sequence (the fight at the barricade) screams “soundstage”, with just a few shouts of “greenscreen!” peppered in so we remember that old-man-in-spirit Hooper is hip to the tech (sarcasm; he is not). Actually, the direction is altogether amateurish and distractingly showy-meets-uninventive. The sound editing is pretty good, however, making use of silence where appropriate, and the orchestra blends well with the live singing that was so over-publicized (more on that in a moment, though I will say that I think Les Mis doesn’t deserve extra points for singing live so much as previous movie musicals should be criticized for setting the idiotic standard of Not singing live). When it eventually wins Best Picture at the Oscars, I’ll be a little let down on Argo‘s behalf but I won’t be upset. The incredible ambition of Les Mis alone makes its very competence a cinematic achievement. If it wins Best Director or, worse, Best Cinematography, on the other hand, I may have to start throwing things at the screen. (Same thing with Best Adapted Screenplay- there was very little adapting going on. Now, The Hunger Games, that was a cleverly adapted screenplay; this was basically script arrangement).

As for the principal character work-

Les-Mis-Hathaway-Jackman1Let’s start with the headliners- Anne Hathaway and Hugh Jackman. As a fan of the stage show, I found myself getting progressively more and more annoyed with the release of every new trailer, poster or promotional clip/talk show appearance/funnyordie sketch featuring “Les Mis star” Anne Hathaway. It was false advertising. Fantine spends about a cumulative 20 minutes of the 3 hour show on stage, if not less. She shows up 15 minutes in, sings a couple solo lines about working in a factory, does the blockbuster “I Dreamed a Dream”, provides a few more one-liners about selling her hair and becoming a prostitute, delivers a lovely and important but almost always overlooked death song (cleverly titled “Fantine’s Death”), then she bites it, goes backstage and takes a nap until her ghostly 3-stanza reappearance in the finale. Fantine is not the star of Les Mis, but Anne Hathaway is a big movie star who was just coming off of Batman so they publicized the hell out of her. The Les Mis awards machine also identified previous nominee and terrible host Hathaway as the film’s best surefire shot at an Oscar win early, so the poor polarizing actress has had her face shoved in our faces for months. Wary as I am of such publicity motivations, I was fully prepared to hate her Fantine. Anne-Hathaway-Fantine-Les-miserablesThe first time I saw the “I Dreamed a Dream” trailer I was annoyed by the acty, breathy way she was approaching the song (and that the clip conveniently edited around the hard part- that killer melismatic ‘sha-a-a-a-ame’ scale). Then I saw the interview where she talks about singing live and how she felt that “there seemed to be something selfish about trying to go for the pretty version”, and it completely won me over. Suddenly I believed in her again (even though the hints of British accent I was detecting were foreboding- if Anne Hathaway has an acting achilles heel, it is her attempt at a British accent). But the more I saw of Hugh Jackman’s performance in clips, also toying with the idea of “pretty” in favour of his idea of “truth”, the more I started to resent both of their approaches. Were they suggesting that Ruthie Henshall’s technically superb and fully breath supported take on “I Dreamed a Dream” was somehow fake? That Schönberg was not an astute enough composer to put the hard notes in places where the effort and support required to hit them properly reflected the moment being sung? I’m fully in support of an acting-first “Little Fall of Rain” but surely “I Dreamed a Dream” can be melancholically strong (not to mention how far away Jackman’s extrapolated “Who Am I” takes the piece from its point, and its rhythmic structure). When you see the scenes in their film context, all is revealed. Jackman’s “Who Am I” is a symptom of his entire performance- overacted, undersung and both a technical and artistic shadow of his predecessors’ work (example: “Bring Him Home” is considered a showstopper because of the stunning falsetto that reaches as high as Valjean can go towards heaven. Jackman can’t hit it, the point is lost, the piece is completely overshadowed). les_miserables_anne_hathaway_a_hOn the flip side of the coin, the biggest victim of outrageous PR-planted expectations, Anne Hathaway took my qualms and simply climbed on top of them to create what will surely be the definitive Fantine (in the Les Mis hall of fame with Colm Wilkinson’s Valjean and Lea Salonga’s Eponine). She got outshone in the factory scene and I was just starting to worry when I figured out that “I Dreamed a Dream” wasn’t going where it usually goes. In the only rearrangement that really pays off in full, screenwriter William Nicholson (or at least I’m assuming that’s whose idea it was) places the iconic solo not after Fantine is fired from the factory but later in the script, after she’s had her hair shorn off and been recruited by the “Lovely Ladies”. After the horror of that song’s final verse- ‘don’t they know they’re making love to one already dead?’- there’s no going back to the way “I Dreamed a Dream” is generally sung, and Hathaway knows that. So she changed it. With the song where it is, it undermines the tragic beauty of “Fantine’s Death” a little bit (I’ve always loved the juxtaposition of strength between Fantine’s two solos- one dreaming, one dying), but it makes “I Dreamed a Dream” pack a hundred times the punch that it usually does. And, unlike Jackman, Hathaway’s fragile and technically imperfect “act-y” performance doesn’t mess with things like timing more than reason will allow- she still hits what she needs to hit (‘sha-a-a-a-ame’ is stunning, by the way), she just plays the lows lower so the highs are more painfully reached (painful in a heart way, not an ear way). movies_les_miserables_still_7In one of the only true services he does for his actors, Hooper chooses “I Dreamed a Dream” as his one moment to lay off a bit on the camera theatrics. The whole number is a single stunning take from one angle. The camera floats a bit (staying still is just too much to ask of the man), but it’s as close to performance-first, showing off-second as Hooper gets and one can’t help but think that it might be because he was too caught up in Hathaway’s performance to think of undermining it with a 45° angle. In the finale, Hathaway’s Fantine returns alone to usher Valjean into heaven (well, mostly alone, she’s joined on one line by the bishop from act one who supposedly “saved [Valjean’s] soul for god” instead of “bought” it like he does on stage). The elimination of Eponine from that scene makes the finale less about those who know what it is to truly “love another person”(and thus)”see the face of god” and more about those who’ve specifically loved Cosette. While I think it weakens the final message just one tiny tad and I wholly resent the bishop-as-god addition (the changing of that lyric from “bought” to “saved” followed up by his greeting Valjean as he walks into the light is just way too on-the-nose and undermines that character as a human who is a simple example of goodness, though I do enjoy the meta fun of Colm Wilkinson’s cameo-as-god blessing this new Valjean, even if his iconic tenor is completely wrong for the bishop’s stirring bass line), bringing the story thematically back to just Fantine and her initial sacrifice is neater and more cinematic (it also supports the argument that Fantine is a bigger deal than she is, which is convenient for the producers and fits with Hathaway’s star turn).

eddie-redmayne-les-miserablesThe other standout solo moment is “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables”, Marius’ memorial for his fallen friends on the barricade and one of the musical’s most enthralling pieces (and a highlight of Herbert Kretzmer’s work on the English lyrics). Here Hooper’s nutty closeups didn’t bother me as much because Eddie Redmayne Kills the number and I wouldn’t have wanted to miss a single twitch of his cheek. Redmayne’s voice is strong and pretty (a nice bonus considering he won his Tony for a straight play) despite a weird almost Kermit-y undertone that buzzes behind certain notes. He’s also intensely likable and handsome in both a universal and offbeat way which I found perfect for Marius as the recipient of both love at first sight (Cosette) and love of the long-brewing friendship-developed kind (Eponine).He exudes the intelligence he needs as a politically minded student but is young and intense enough to fall realistically hard for both love and war. Punished by women everywhere for not recognizing or requiting Eponine’s love- and for the stupidly fast way he falls for Cosette- Marius is, I think, the great underrated role of Les Mis. Les-Miserables-Poster-Banner-Seyfried He’s often remembered for his love triangle, but the push-and-pull of his loyalty to the barricade (which is wrapped up in his fundamental beliefs, his politics, And his close friendship with Enjolras) versus his feelings of love (both romantically for Cosette, whom he risks losing if he fights, and platonically for Eponine, whom he loses In the fight) gives him one of the most intense arcs of the piece. As the only survivor of the uprising, Marius gets everything he wanted in act one (by marrying Cosette) only after he loses everything he’s ever cared for (his friends, his cause, and Eponine), and spends the rest of the play suspended in a state of confusion, grief, happiness, and torturous guilt. All of that comes to a head in “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables”, Marius’ only showy moment of depth. Redmayne manages to carve out what he can in the rest of the film- showcasing fantastic chemistry with Amanda Seyfried (Cosette), Aaron Tveit (Enjolras), and Samantha Barks (Eponine)- but it’s in “Empty Chairs” that he is truly mesmerizing. Casting director Nina Gold could have easily gone with the more commercial (and just so handsome) Nick Jonas who played the role in the 25th Anniversary Concert and whose “Empty Chairs” wouldn’t have been as vocally terrible as you might think. Her realization that the oft-overlooked part needed an actor’s actor of Redmayne’s calibre (with a bonus singing voice) is one of the great blessings of the film.

Les MisérablesChemistry-wise, Amanda Seyfried’s Cosette has a sort of magic when she shares the screen with her Marius but isn’t set up for scene-stealing success. Cosette is the costume, makeup and hair departments’ greatest success in my opinion as they gave the admittedly already very beautiful Seyfried an almost angelic glow. Her younger counterpart, Isabelle Allen (the soulful-looking child who so perfectly embodied the classic book cover/musical poster image), delivers a faint, dirt besmirched “Castle on a Cloud” (complete with somewhat creepy spoken rendering of the usually not-at-all-creepy “Cosette, I love you very much” line) then snuggles closely in Hugh Jackman’s arms to wait to grow up. He sings a pretty song (“Suddenly”) about loving her, designed entirely to get the film into the “Best Original Song” category at the Oscars, then we flashforward straight to the falling-in-love-at-first-sight. Remember when I said that Marius is often punished by female audiences for not loving Eponine? That strangely seems to go double for Cosette. She’s done nothing particularly wrong, but the high pitched ingenue, no matter how sweetly played, rarely seems to live up to the reputation the other characters build for her. Fantine dies for her, Valjean risks everything to protect her, Marius loves her over Eponine before he even meets her- that’s tough. Seyfried does a lovely job with the character. original (1)Because she’s pretty severely underwritten (beyond the distracted musings that kick off “In My Life”, Cosette’s adult life beyond her love for Marius goes almost entirely unexplored), all she gets to play is devotion to Valjean and grief at his death (which Seyfried does beautifully) and instant sweeping romantic chemistry with Marius (a credit to both actors). Seyfried’s Cosette is sweet enough to hold off the audience’s resentment over the love triangle, and innocent enough to believably remain in the dark about her own past without seeming dopey. Cosette’s is, however, one of the most challenging vocal parts in the score and Seyfried’s voice is a bit thin to carry it consistently without irritating audience members leaning more towards the powerful mezzos with their affection. She glides effortlessly into the outrageous top notes at the end of both renditions of “A Heart Full of Love”, but suffers more than any other actor under the thumb of singing live. Because most movie musicals aren’t sung live (even though it makes Such a difference to the acting calibre), maybe no one was in the habit of making vocal considerations, or perhaps Hooper just doesn’t know anything about sopranos and Seyfried didn’t stand up for herself , but a fair amount of Cosette’s blocking has her sitting, bending, perched or otherwise just not standing straight. For Fantine or Eponine’s vocals, that’s not an insurmountable problem (though it’s not exactly ideal) but when flitting about in exclusively high registers as Cosette does, it’s very hard to breathe sufficiently in those positions. Not to mention the premium Hooper’s intimate tone sets on understated, quiet delivery- the higher the notes, the more strength and support the singer needs in order to sustain notes and keep from thinning out or squeaking. Vocally, I had high hopes for Seyfried after Mamma Mia, but her battle here was steeper than most.

article-0-1641D19B000005DC-117_306x491Samantha Barks, however, is able to deliver the smash hit “On My Own” with full breath and full emotion (the two have never been mutually exclusive on that near-perfect song) then contrast it well in the post-gunshot-to-the-belly duet “A Little Fall of Rain” (again Redmayne is heartbreaking as he promises “I will stay with you/till you are sleeping”). Because of that sad/scary fact that we all over-relate to Eponine even before we have any real reason to, she is at once an easy character to love and a hard character to capture perfectly (one actress friend of mine is so possessive of the role that she’s never liked anyone else’s version). Personally, I tend to love her so long as the actress can hit the high belt notes of “On My Own” with enough gusto then abandon her vocal vanity in time to die. Barks does both those things excellently while also managing to fill in the small character spaces along the way with her own stamp, despite the existence of beloved famous Eponines ahead of her (particularly effective is that we get to see what my friend Nic calls her “pulling a Viola” as she dresses like a boy to go to battle. The famous “One Day More” staging can’t work on film so they’ve cobble together scenes to make up the song the best they could. It’s not quite as stirring but it adds details like this one). But what struck me most amidst Barks’ incredibly strong performance, sadly, was the way the adaptation’s small changes dramatically altered what I think is the key to Eponine’s character. I keep mentioning how the other two characters in the love triangle can be defined by their role in said triangle, but Eponine has even less of a life outside it than Marius and Cosette. She has a weak backstory as the Thenardiers’ daughter but even that folds into her love story once she’s an adult. But it’s never been a real problem that the love story is Eponine’s entire character because, for her, it’s a complex arc all on its own, or at least it usually is. The reason I’ve always felt for Eponine isn’t just that her love is unrequited; unrequited love is the backbone of almost every postmodernist story, I’m tired of unrequited love. What I’ve always admired is the purity of her love. It’s not about security or self-esteem, she doesn’t want to win Marius because he’s the golden boy, and once Cosette’s in the picture Eponine’s story doesn’t become about jealousy or competition. Eponine’s love for Marius is very simple: she loves him so much that what she wants most in the world is for him to be happy. Would she be happier if he loved her back? Of course. Les-Miserables-Still-les-miserables-2012-movie-32902319-1280-853But she doesn’t let that consume much more than her one big solo number (which is usually sung on her way to deliver a letter from Marius to Cosette). What Eponine does in the adult portion of her story is lead her friend Marius to the door of the woman who will make him happy, scream to keep her father’s gang from robbing Cosette’s house, and deliver a letter to Cosette before returning to Marius just in time to get accidentally shot, die in her love’s arms with promises of tragically but kindly overstated love, and become the barricade’s first casualty. Isn’t that tragic in all the right ways? Doesn’t that make you reconsider what it means to truly love another person? Now, let’s look at the film and what it does with its well-played Eponine. For reasons that I’m assuming have to do with flow, “On My Own” is moved from the pre-battle sequence following “One Day More” up to right after “A Heart Full of Love”. She still is the one to formally introduce Marius and Cosette, and she still saves Cosette’s house from robbery, but now Eponine doesn’t deliver the letter from Marius at the barricade (the plot actually more accurately reflects Hugo’s original, but I don’t think that’s for the better). Samantha-Barks-in-Les-Miserables-2012-Movie-Image-2 In fact, she takes a letter that Cosette left for Marius outside her house and keeps it from him until the very last minute, only revealing it when she knows she won’t survive. Without the letter mission, Eponine’s already somewhat flimsy reason for being at the barricade disappears completely, it becomes just a matter of her desperation to be near Marius and she ends up taking a bullet for him (actually pulling the gun towards her own stomach). The whole thing has a suicidal ring to it that makes me like the character a lot less (there’s also more of the almost catty jealousy I’ve always been so impressed the musical didn’t include). This is the main point on which the two brands of Les Mis purists will surely disagree- I think that the musical’s version of the story is much stronger from a character and thematic point of view, but the film comes closer to what the original novel said (though not all the way to crazypants- aka tricking Marius onto the barricade so they can “die together”!- which is what Eponine does in the novel). Since this is an adaptation of the musical and a film adaptation of the novel already exists (it stars Liam Neeson and came out in 1998), I’m sad to see my more optimistic vision of the character never made it to the screen either way.

aaron-tveit-les-miserables-imdb_600x366Enjolras requires less interpretation. The leader of the student rebellion, he’s pretty much the same iteration to iteration with only the degree of his fondness for Marius waffling a bit. In the film, Marius is his friend and right hand man, which I think is the strongest choice for Marius’ arc. Enjolras has to be fatally charismatic with strong stage presence and a big boom of a classically trained voice. Enigma preferred, vulnerability optional, ideally he will look good draped dramatically in red. The iconic Enjolras (the Original Broadway/10th Anniversary cast’s Michael Maguire) had an almost Gaston-like machismo but I really liked that Aaron Tveit doesn’t. He has all the other stuff- the charisma, the presence, the vocal versatility- but he doesn’t shy away from the character’s humanity and fallibility. As passionate and principled as the character is- and those are inarguably defining characteristics that weren’t up for debate in adaptation- Tveit plays a waver of caution that makes the character’s costly failure sympathetic in a way I hadn’t seen before. les-mis-510Beyond strong acting choices (of which he makes many), one of the main components to Tveit’s Enjolras is actually how ill-suited his voice is to the role as it’s usually played. One of Broadway’s biggest golden boys of recent years, Tveit made his name on sweet-voiced rock and pop-influenced roles like Gabe in Next to Normal and Frank (the Leonardo DiCaprio role) in the musical adaptation of Catch Me if You Can (which is much better than it sounds). He has a strong, pretty-but-edgy, distinctly modern, high voice, and Enjolras is the somewhat deeper operatic voice that stands in contrast to Marius. I was thrilled to find out that Tveit was in the Les Mis film- I’m a fan- but Enjolras? But in practice, his higher voice and fresh I-was-on-Gossip-Girl face really worked for me. Tveit has the presence and experience to stand out in the crowd of barricade boys (the best ensemble of the many great ensembles, made up mostly of veterans of Marius and Enjolras on stage) but his not-Michael-Maguire-ness made him more one of the boys than usual. It was all of a sudden more real just how young these guys are, how foolish it is that they’re following this guy into battle who’s living on passion and youthful confidence instead of actual leadership experience. I really like Tveit, but I didn’t think it would work, and it definitely works (apart from his hair- that wig definitely does not work).

helena-bonham-carter-sacha-baron-cohen-les-miserables-photoWhich brings me to the Thenardiers. I cannot stand Helena Bonham Carter, I think she does the exact same wacky wide-eyed act whether she’s playing a 19th century french innkeeper or the homicidal foot soldier of an evil wizard and is just one giant waste of a good part (for ‘mix it in the mincer and pretend it’s beef’- they could have just used old Sweeney Todd footage, no one would have known the difference), so we’re not going to talk about her. Sacha Baron Cohen does a pretty good job, though, as “The Master of the House”. I couldn’t always understand what he was saying but he managed to get a few actual out-loud laughs out of me, which was more than I was expecting. An awkward sniff here, an outstretched hand there and I’d say about half of his attempted gags land to make fair comic relief.

russell-crowe-les-miserables2And now at the end we come to the inevitable, unavoidable issue. You knew we’d get here eventually, we had to talk about it sometime. Here it is: Russell Crowe. I don’t even know where to start with this issue. It literally worries me. A production this big, how many people had to sign off on every little piece of casting? How hard did Eddie Redmayne and Aaron Tveit have to fight to get the roles that they are so good in? Because it genuinely baffles me that with all the red tape and producer/studio/whatever signoffs, nobody bothered to speak up and say “you know what, I think this is the worst casting idea anyone’s ever had”. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think Russell Crowe is a bad actor- I’m a huge Gladiator fan; I stand in awe of his work in A Beautiful Mind– nor do I think he is a bad singer. I don’t think he’s been at the top of his acting game in years (whether that’s because of effort, attitude, age, or bad luck), but I do believe that he’s got it somewhere in him to be great (I’m not actually sure the same can be said of Hugh Jackman. I mean, he’s a badass action star and a dashing rom-com lead, a decent awards show host, but full-on grade-A actor? Meh). When I say he’s not a bad singer, on the other hand, I don’t actually mean he’s a good singer. He’s an acceptable singer if we’re talking strictly as the frontman of a rock band. He’s an acceptable singer the way Adam Levine is an acceptable singer- if you’re otherwise awesome, and we like you, you are allowed to sing under specific circumstances, if the song choice is acceptable, or if you wrote the song yourself and/or are playing guitar or piano while you sing. les-miserables-croweThere is No earthly reason why Anyone should have let Russell Crowe sing not only songs from one of the most classically influenced and vocally demanding musicals of all time but some of the Hardest songs from one of the most classically influenced and vocally demanding musicals of all time. His acting in the film is incredibly stiff, unsympathetic, and generally underwhelming, but I understand a casting director’s desire to believe that it won’t turn out that way- that’s on Crowe- but how? why? HOW did he end up in this sung-through role with zero musical theatre credit to his name? Surely adding one more recognizable name to the IMDB page wasn’t so important that everyone signing off was willing to risk the film’s antagonist, key foil and most morally complex figure? Surely. The more I think about it now, the more upset I get. There are roles in the musical theatre canon that can be given to- maybe even Should be given to- actors with no experience in the medium. Roger in Rent, for example, is generally better green. Moritz Stiefel. Any of the We Will Rock of Ages guys. Even Aaron Tveit’s usual roles, they’re vocally demanding but they’re not epic or based in classical technique. He could have played Thenardier! (Not well, but it could have happened), or generally anyone in the field of comic relief. Juan Peron’s vocals aren’t that hard. Billy Flynn. The blue-collar dad in Billy Elliot. Why didn’t he do Mamma Mia? No one Actually cared that much about the people who couldn’t sing in Mamma Mia as long as they looked like they were trying. The man could have played Mr. Mistoffelees and I wouldn’t have minded this much (you see, Mr. Mistofelees is the only cat who doesn’t sing). 8But Javert? Javert’s important. He’s groundbreaking. He’s complicated in every possible facet of portrayal. And he carries half the story. A bad Javert can come as close to fully ruining a Les Mis as any single actor can, and you better believe Russell Crowe tested the limits on that one. The simple truth of it is, if the role was meant to be played by an actor without standout vocal chops, Schönberg wouldn’t have made it so hard to sing. I’ve seen people- trained baritones- work for years to master “Stars” and still not quite get it up to snuff. There’s a reason why Johnny Depp was able to maneuver his way, unqualified, through Sweeney Todd– it’s an actor-first role. Javert needs a real actor (and it would have been nice if at least that side of Crowe had shown up), but he’s a singer-first role (in Les Mis they all are, apart from the Thenardiers) and no matter how many times someone claims that it makes sense for Javert to be a thin-voiced pitch-challenged vocal weakling, it doesn’t. He needs to be able to go toe-to-toe with Valjean and occasionally find the upper hand vocally (that’s how the counterpoint in “Confrontation” is supposed to work. If you’ve only seen the movie, you were likely too busy watching the silly sword fight and laughing at Crowe counting beats in his head to notice). Javert needs to be strong and centered, an antagonist whose determination to be a good guy is what drives him mad. The moment when Javert jumps to his death should be tragic and painful- even if he is the “villain”- but by the time Crowe warbled his way through that great soliloquy that so ingeniously echos Valjean’s earlier desperation, the friend beside me was saying “if he doesn’t jump soon, I’m going to push him”. There is no excuse in the whole world that can make up for the giant waste that is this role in the film. Javert is arguably the greatest role in the musical- one of the greatest roles in all of musical theatre- and this film would have been better off cutting him completely.

Tom Hooper’s Les Mis (and especially Hooper himself) makes lots of mistakes. Lots of decisions that don’t fly, lots of things that just can’t possibly live up to the crushing expectations of people for whom Les Miserables is untouchable (one of whom I will semi-admit to being; I don’t think anything’s untouchable ever, but Les Mis is certainly up on one of the highest pedestals I’ve got). Some of those things that on paper I might have called mistakes actually give the movie a chance at carving its own place in Les Mis legend instead of falling by the also-ran wayside like so many stage-to-screen adaptations do. Anne Hathaway singing “I Dreamed a Dream”, Eddie Redmayne’s soulful Marius in extreme closeup, Aaron Tveit waving the red flag as the people of Paris rally behind Enjolras in an only-possible-on-film sized crowd singing the finale reprise of “Do You Hear the People Sing”- these are cinematic moments for the ages. But what those moments make me think of most is just how great this film Could have been if some of the middling disappointments and the few glaringly terrible things had just not made it in. Les Miserables is an incredibly special piece of enduring and ever-evolving art, and the film should reflect that more soundly than it does.

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