So, I've seen the Les Miserables movie.
It's basically a mashup of the musical and the novel, with a surprising amount of new/added scenes, dialogue and songs. While it's still almost entirely sung-through like an opera, I'd say they cut about a quarter of the music/lyrics from the play and added at least that much new stuff, plus completely new musical arrangements.
The performers are mostly great, and the orchestrations are uniformly so. I was also surprised by how gorgeous the film looks, especially after reading complaints about Tom Hooper's camerawork through the years. Hooper does love his negative space when framing shots, but it never threw me out of the moment. Strictly in terms of production design, sets, lighting, and cinematography, this is one of the most beautiful films I've seen in a very long time, from improbable crane shots of a windswept seacoast to golden closeups of smiles shot through candlelight. The look of the opening 30 minutes or so reminded a lot of "Batman Begins."
That said, I can see why many critics are divided over it. The singing is one barrier to overcome, and once you do there's another, bigger one: It's a gritty live-action period piece, but it has the narrative feel of a Pixar movie. By that I mean that it assumes a level of open-hearted acceptance of wide-eyed ideals like "love and forgiveness conquers all" and shamelessly yanks at your heartstrings from beginning to end - sometimes in a bit of a clumsy fashion. Credit or blame for that "moist-eyed storybook romanticism," as one critic called it, can be spread equally among the novel and the play.
Those things can be a bit too much to ask from every moviegoer - critics in particular - in what is a very cynical age, so not everyone is going to receive it warmly. But I did. I cheered twice and cried more than that. For the most part, this is the movie I've been wanting for the last 20 years. It combines everything I love about the many film versions I've seen and presents it in sprawling, epic style through the music of the play.
If you're a fan of the musical or the novel, you'll probably feel the same way I did. And let's face it, that's quite a lot of people. If you're not a fan or are unfamiliar with the show, there's still a lot to enjoy but also some potential narrative stumbling blocks in there that could confuse you. You'll also probably feel the 2.5-hour running time a lot more, even as it moves through plot points at breakneck speed.
Many of the changes speed up that pace, cutting out transitional music and even entire verses of some of the play's most well-known songs. Events are rearranged, songs are moved, and new scenes and music are added to bring the narrative flow more in line with the events of Hugo's novel.
Much of the added material clarifies and expands on Valjean's transition from prisoner, to mayor (under an assumed identity), to adopted father, and Javert's pursuit of him through that time. There's even a new song in this stretch, and like the other added music it sounds like it would have fit well in the play.
While it's thrilling as a fan of the book to see these new scenes play out so beautifully, it means that the second half of the movie involving the student-led rebellion and the love triangle between Cosette, Marius, and Eponine gets far less focus and clarity, which could confuse those who are less familiar with the show or book. The connection between Marius and Cosette is very loosely established. "Drink With Me" is gutted, which makes the Enjolras/Grantaire relationship mostly MIA - especially tragic since their storyline ends so poetically here. Eponine seems to appear and leave in a heartbeat, and the students now are mostly a sea of vaguely familiar faces by the end.
That's a shame because most of the best performers here are in those scenes.
Anne Hathaway is as good as advertised as Fantine, but no more so than any of the dozens of great stage Fantines. Still, that's saying a lot, especially considering that she's a Hollywood actress.
Eddie Redmayne is just as impressive as Marius, in my opinion, in a role that doesn't give him nearly as much to chew on as Hathaway. As the rebellion leader Enjolras, Aaron Tveit backs up his intense presence with a clear, powerful voice; and Samantha Barks is similarly (though less surprisingly) outstanding as Eponine. I wish I could have seen more of all of them, though it's nice to see their stories play out much more similarly to the book than they did onstage. The fall of the barricades is a moment I won't soon forget.
Daniel Huttlestone is a real surprise as the streetwise Gavroche. He gets the chance to serve as the voice for Hugo's Paris and takes advantage, smirking his way through added material like:
This is the land that fought for liberty /
Now when we fight, we fight for bread /
Here is the thing about equality /
Everyone's equal when they're dead
I was doubtful when Russell Crowe was cast as Javert and even more suspicious when he was missing from the pre-release snippets and soundbites, but I'm happy to say that he pleasantly surprised me. He doesn't have the vocal power that's needed to make the character soar and his voice can sound nasally (it's been well-described as a foghorn). But his marching ballad style of delivery presents it in the most pleasing way possible, and he has good screen presence in the role. He also benefits from the additions: There's a nice swordfight with Valjean early on and a wonderful little humanizing touch for the character later in the movie.
With all of this earnestness flying around, Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter bring some much-needed carefree, if despicable, levity to the Thenardiers; putting their stamp on the roles by firing off near constant under-the-breath ad-libs while teetering on the edge of cartoonishness. I've seen a lot of negative comments about how they feel out of place here, but you'll hear none from me. In the play the characters were meant to provide some ironic commentary and a hefty amount of comedy relief, and that's precisely what they inject here. It's certainly a different beat from the rest of the movie, but that's the point.
That's even more necessary here than it was on stage because the movie's realistic approach eliminates much of the dark comedy that existed in the play. "Lovely Ladies," which almost had the feel of a wacky masquerade ball on stage, is unrelentingly dark and brutal in the movie, complete with drug use, rape, and dental torture. Eponine's carefree spunk is entirely gone, transferred to some degree to Gavroche, and leaving her as nothing but a tragic figure.
It's a far more somber feel overall than the stage show, but that didn't bother me.
The one big negative for me was Hugh Jackman, or more specifically, Hugh Jackman's voice.
While his voice is fine, relatively speaking, it's just not right for this role. Valjean demands a remarkable voice, and Jackman's voice is decidedly unremarkable. He harshly belts his way to notes that most Valjeans reach with little effort, yet he defiantly plows on in workmanlike fashion for his 90-plus minutes of onscreen singing, varying between adequate and strained. Valjean's trademark prayerful soliloquy "Bring Him Home" was so harsh that I spent much of the wedding scene dreading the fact that I'd have to hear him try to get through it again in the reprise. Even while cringing, I felt bad for him - it's not his fault he doesn't have the range for the role.
Thankfully, Hugh Jackman is remarkable in virtually every way other than his singing voice, and most of those qualities are on full display here as well - from an impressive physicality to a career-defining emotional journey.
Hooper seems very much aware of this and changes his filmmaking style to highlight each performer's strengths. Jackman gets intimate, screen-filling closeups as he chokes out sobbing notes. Crowe's big solo numbers feature sweeping, reverent shots of him towering over Paris. Barks gets one static mid-range shot, and she just sits there in frame providing all of the pyrotechnics with her voice.
Some effort also seems to have been made to even out the strength of the singing, with the stronger singers holding back to match the less powerful ones. So while Crowe gives it everything he's got, Barks scales her enormous voice back to almost lullaby level to match, which can be frustrating as a viewer. It's like watching Usain Bolt being forced to jog so he doesn't lap the field. Stage Valjean Colm Wilkinson, bizarrely, is given nearly as much spoken as sung dialogue as the Bishop of Digne, though it's still fun to see him play such a key role in this scale of a production.
Voices aside, there are a few unfortunate moments. The biggest may be a Looney Tunes sound effect that was added over a death scene late in the show - I'll be surprised if it doesn't trigger some laughter in the theater. And the showstopping "One Day More" loses a lot of its impact because of the removal of almost all percussion from the music arrangement (I really miss those cymbal crashes!) and a static, montage-of-faces approach to the editing of the segment instead of the big, sweeping crowd shots that the music implies.
But all things considered, I adored this brave and moving interpretation. It rarely captures the stage show's raw power, but it certainly captures its heart. I plan to see it again in theaters, and I can't wait to own it on DVD. And yet I have no plans to buy the movie soundtrack - the audio, detached from the visuals, shows off nearly all of the movie's weaknesses and few of its strengths. That alone says as much as anything about this adaptation.