The Broadway musical has had a long and storied history with Hollywood. From those crazy New Yorkers jumpin’ and jivin’ in Westside Story, to the eerie obsession of an older man in Phantom of the Opera, and now the timeless Les Misérables. Most theater buffs (are they called buffs?) are understandably reserved, because it’s enough that Les Misérables is arguably the most beloved musical on the planet, but it’s a tricky operation to adapt the energy of a live theatrical performance to a filmed and realized universe. As the only apparent staff writer who can stomach the genre, I had the pleasure of tackling Tom Hooper’s (The King’s Speech) Best Picture hopeful Les Misérables.
Based on the novel by Victor Hugo, Les Miserables follows a man named Jean Valjean (Jackman), prisoner 24601, sentenced to 19 years of slavery for stealing a loaf of bread for his starving family (Casey Anthony laughs at your justice). After serving his time, Valjean expects to be a free man, but is informed by Inspector Javert (Crowe) that he’s still considered a danger to society, and must stay on parole for life. Obviously, ain’t nobody got time for that, so Valjean makes a run for it. After a curious encounter with a priest (and a terrific rendition of What Have I Done?) he vows to please God and turn his life around by becoming a respectable member of society. Never again will he spend a day under the lash or allow his empathy to die.
After fateful events, the beautiful Fantine (Hathaway) falls into prostitution to pay for her daughter Cosette (Isabelle Allen & Amanda Seyfried) and belts out a fearless rendition of I Dreamed a Dream. In a touching sequence with Valjean, Fantine is promised that as long as he’s around, Cosette will always know love. Much of Les Misérables follows the story of Valjean and his transformation from dirt poor slave to affluent man, town Mayor, and adoptive father. He’s a man that’s never known love, and Cosette, this lovely little girl needing the love he’s always longed to give, appears in his life and gives him all the incentive he needs to go on living.
And Hugh Jackman is a boss as Jean Valjean. It’s one thing to be the grizzly man full of rage, but it’s another to bring vulnerability and grace to such a strong character. I was well aware of his Tony awards, so this isn’t a “wow Wolverine can sing too?” moment. Nor did I have dreams of an X-Men musical (but imagine the Cyclops and Jean Grey duet!) What I was most impressed by was the blend of superb acting and vocal work, because in musicals it’s generally an unwritten rule that you’re gonna get one or the other. This isn’t Jackman hiding behind studio sheen and post-production. It’s a beautiful performance that carries a legitimate shot at bringing home Best Actor. I’m not saying hand the man the Oscar, but if it comes down to Jackman or DD Lewis as a hammy old Lincoln, hand the man the Oscar.
Of course, it wouldn’t be Les Misérables without the oppressive despair. Set against the backdrop of the French Revolution, there’s always some political musings to go with the injustice. From Red and Black to Bring Him Home, they really hit it out of the park with the battle scenes and the grand scope of the events in an attempted coup d’état. Yet through all this, no matter where Valjean runs, Javert won’t go away, and refuses to see anyone make a mockery of justice. Cue the Benny Hill music as they chase each other all around France for decades over the simple theft of a loaf of bread.
Have you ever been subjected to the “company man” in your retail working experience? I’m sure you have. The man/woman who despite the suggestions of rational human beings, insists on following the rulebook to the letter, even if the business would thrive if they didn’t. That’s Javert. Except instead of “the handbook says we can’t do that” unbreakability, it’s “I’m going to shackle you into slavery for stealing a loaf of bread.” Is his bland neutrality to “it’s just the law” insufferable? You bet, but what would someone like Javert be without imposing his perceived power onto lesser people? Probably a mall cop, but it’s 1800’s France, so…
Luckily, Russell Crowe can act, even if Broadway giggles at his attempted signing. He may be a weak link in the vocal department, but he commands attention in every scene. And he’s not the first to stumble, surely you all remember Johnny Depp humming bum notes in Sweeney Todd? However, Crowe possesses something a majority of excellent Broadway do not: acting chops. Are there great actors who can also sing? Sure, Jackman is clearly one of them, but Crowe definitely earned his spot. Hooper, you are officially cleared of the “casting Crowe ‘cus I got a big budget” accusation.
(Also, is it just me or is Javert just the character from Master and Commander with some facial hair and a few more years on his face?)
Speaking of Sweeney Todd, Helena Bonham Carter makes another appearance in a musical (or movie) as “the lady with the crazy hair” playing Madame Thénardier. She also comes with her ridiculous cockney accent present in seemingly every role she plays lately, but she’s tolerable thanks to the hilarious talents of Sacha Baron Cohen as her husband and petty thief Monsieur Thenardie. He adds much of the needed comic relief to an otherwise heavy backdrop. Watching him operate will transport you back to the best of slapstick and it’s a riot to watch him work. Name me a man who takes more risks in comedy today than Cohen.
The unique aspect of this adaptation is the requirement of the actors to sing all their parts live. Yes, that’s new. Generally, the actors sing in a big fancy air conditioned studio, then lip sync their parts in front of a camera and struggle to pretend that they’re really singing. Picture Ashley Simpson on SNL. It’s usually like that. I’m not saying the live crooning of Les Misérables elevates it to “better than the stage” praise, but for those that can’t afford Broadway prices, this is an epic and faithful adaptation that will give you as full of an experience as film can give.
Les Misérables is a die-hard musical clocking in at over 2 1/2 hours, so hit the bathroom before it starts, because it’s a marvelous show. I love the cast, I love the music, and I love the beautifully designed EVERYTHING. Theater fans rejoice, because you’re in for a treat. Even if Hooper’s direction can feel a bit too much like a Disney attraction with his constant swoops and swishes, the sheer scope of his vision can only be admired. Les Misérables is a superb experience and one of my favorite movies of the year, so stick that in your Argo and smoke it.
Now if I can only stop being caught singing everywhere.
Look downnn, look downnn, you’ll always be a slave…