Reel To Reel: Les Misérables
Going Rate: Worth full price admission... and then some
Starring: Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, Anne Hathaway, Amanda Seyfried, Sacha Baron Cohen, Helena Bonham Carter
Red Flags: Emotional and graphic depiction of poverty and prostitution, Ye olde musket violence, a few curse words
I remember somebody criticizing the Broadway production of Les Misérables for "making the poor look cute." Maybe this film version is what he had in mind: a gritty yet soaring, emotionally draining contemporary opera set in 19th-century France that reaches deep into the soul and does not let go. Bring Kleenex -- a lot of it.
Director Tom Hooper (The King's Speech) turns the wildly successful stage production into a musical drama, where dialogue is sung in the manner it would be spoken. Eschewing the traditional movie-musical convention of recording the songs in a studio and lip-synching them in front of the camera, Hooper's cast sings in real time. This technique required each cast member to listen to a piano played off-camera through a hidden earpiece to keep them in key. However, instead of looking at a conductor to guide their pace, the actors set their own time, and the orchestra recorded the backing instrumentation later, matching the actors' rhythms. The product is highly passionate and yet nuanced as the actors are required to act as they sing and play to the camera instead of the back of the house.
You already know Victor Hugo's story: paroled prisoner Jean Valjean (Jackman) is transformed by a priest's act of mercy, driven to break parole and inspired to become a new person. He reinvents himself as a successful businessman and agrees to care for the daughter of Fantine (Hathaway), one of his factory workers forced into a life of prostitution after losing her job. The daughter, Cosette (Seyfried), lives as a neglected errand girl to a corrupt innkeeper (Cohen) and his wife, who provide the musical's sparse lighter moments. Getting the girl away from her deplorable life at the inn is easy compared to getting away from policeman Javert (Crowe) who is engaged in a duel of wills with his former prisoner. The story takes us through a doomed uprising among Paris' poor in which Valjean and Cosette will come to terms with life, love and purpose.
Another benefit of watching the cast sing in real time is that you know their voices are their own, eschewing another Hollywood musical tradition of replacing some singing voices. I saw this film with my Queen Mother and Royal Father, and we all kept a scorecard. Hathaway's Fantine stands out, notably her heartbreaking version of "I Dreamed A Dream." Seyfried also turns in a powerful performance. Crowe's singing works, but he seems a little flatter than the rest -- or maybe that's by design. The big surprise is Jackman's Valjean: he definitely can sing his way through a demanding role. I kept saying to myself, "This is Wolverine?"
Hooper moves the story along at lightning speed. Some songs have been shortened considerably or reworked. One new number appears, written by the show's original composers. I don't think you will have any problem with the changes, and if you do, the stage production is still out there. Making a movie musical is not as simple as filming a theatrical performance, although Hooper conceivably could've gone that route and people would've understood. This version pushes realism while preserving the power and spirituality of a work that has been astounding audiences for more than 25 years.
It is not hard to understand why this story speaks to so many of us. It deals with redemption, love and loss. In Jean Valjean's journey, we remember our GOD is a GOD of second, third, and fourth chances. We remember how GOD uses imperfect people to do HIS work in this world. We remember the servants we are called to be, giving of ourselves and forgiving as GOD forgives us. How can GOD love us so much when we continue to show such lack of love to others? Why does HE trust us with HIS creation when we abuse the gifts we are given?
For the benefit of your fellow moviegoers, please refrain from singing at the end. But don't refrain from the tears. GOD gave them to you for a reason, including films like this.