“Do you hear the people sing?
Lost in the valley of the night
It is the music of a people who are climbing to the light.
For the wretched of the earth there is a flame that never dies,
Even the darkest night will end and the sun will rise.”
I feel like most musical theatre fans of my age really cut their teeth on Les Miserables. While my parents had taken me to see other shows (including the other 80’s British Behemoth Phantom of the Opera), Les Mis was the first musical that I would listen to for hours on end. Oh, how I wanted to be Eponine when I was a teenager (which is interesting, because as an adult, my tastes lean more towards Fantine)! I would listen to the CDs in the car, often having a MAJOR solo singalong to “One Day More” in which I would do all the different voices. So needless to say, when it was announced that the musical was FINALLY coming to the big screen, I had high expectations. I devoured each little tidbit of news…Hugh Jackman as Jean Valjean!! Russell Crowe as Javert? Hmmmm. Annie Hathaway as Fantine? Hey, she can sing. Amanda Seyfried as Cosette? Meh, nobody likes Cosette anyway. HOLD THE PHONE TAYLOR SWIFT IS GOING TO BE EPONINE?!?!?! NO. No no no no no no. WAIT…Eponine is NOT T-Swift but is instead West End Actress Samantha Barks, who was good enough to play the role in the 25th Anniversary concert? WHEW.
The trailer was amazing. All the art work was amazing. Word that came out of advanced screenings was rapturous. People were weeping and then giving it standing ovations. They declared the Oscar Race for Best Supporting Actress over before it even started…everybody else go home, cause Anne Hathaway has this in the bag.
All the online chatter did not help temper my expectations. Could Les Mis possibly live up to the hype? I dragged my family along with me to the first screening on Christmas Morning to find out…
Obviously, there are spoilers. But what do you care? You know the Cast Recording inside out, don’t you?
I will say this. The hype about Anne Hathaway is completely true. Her version of “I Dreamed a Dream” left me a blubbering mess. I thought it was incredibly effective to move the placement of the song to after “Lovely Ladies” to show Fantine at her most broken as opposed to placing it after “At the End of the Day” where yes, Fantine is devastated at being sacked, but she has SO MUCH farther to fall. After you see her go from a beautiful but poor factory worker to an utterly beaten down woman who sold her hair, her teeth and her body…you truly see her pain and her rage and her sadness as she sings “I had a dream my life would be so different from this hell I’m living”. I didn’t care at all that she wasn’t belting it to the rafters along the lines of the stage version (but the power of her voice DID surprise me) because Anne acted the HELL out of it, along with every other scene she was in. I hope you have a lot of spare shelf space, Ms. Hathaway…cause you are going to win ALL the awards. Also, as a long-haired lady myself, I have mad respect for Anne actually allowing them to cut her ACTUAL hair on-screen. That’s dedication.
Jean Valjean is a daunting role for any actor, and with the exception of “Bring Him Home” I thought Hugh Jackman was more than up to the task of carrying the film on his shoulders. He brought Valjean’s compassion to life with such clarity he practically oozed goodness out of every pore. The first time I broke down crying was during his soliloquy at the top of the film. Much has been made of Tom Hooper’s decision to have the actors sing live as opposed to tracks so the actors would be able to freely interpret the music in the moment instead of being tied to acting choices they made months ago in a recording studio. I feel this was the right choice 90% of the time, and Jackman made great use of this freedom in his soliloquy (“What have I done? Sweet Jesus, what have I done?”) and it was chill inducing. Like I said earlier, the only time I had a problem with Hugh was in his interpretation of “Bring Him Home”. I am used to the song being sung very quietly and delicately, like it is a prayer, and Hugh’s voice was much too brassy and loud for my liking (maybe because the song was a bit too high and that’s what he had to do to hit the notes?). But even the times where his singing was lacking, his acting more than made up for it. He’s a shoe-in for the Golden Globe, and while Daniel Day-Lewis may be unbeatable in the Oscar race, Jackman’s gonna try to give him a run for his money.
Let’s get this out-of-the-way: Russell Crowe’s performance as Javert is a divisive one…even within the course of the film. At times I liked him and other times he left me incredibly flat. He has a more rock sounding voice, which automatically clashes with everyone else’s sound. When he first opened his mouth, I was a bit relieved. He sounded fine! And he sounded fine in many SECTIONS of the film. But…”Stars”. Sigh. One of my favorite songs in the show, previously interpreted by geniuses like Terrence Mann and Norm Lewis. And this? Ugh. Not up to task in my mind. This is what irked me about Russell’s voice: it always sounded…muffled? Half swallowed? He’s one that could have benefited from some work (ahem, autotune) in the studio for sure. And I understand that Javert is a man of the law, and therefore tends not to show emotion, but Crowe took that too far, even at the end. I didn’t really SEE his despair and conflict at the end when Valjean showed him mercy. It was just like “Welp! I guess I’ll just jump off this bridge cause that’s what’s in the script.” However, there was a small moment when Javert observes the carnage at the barricade that brought tears to my eyes. So like I said…divisive.
As for the rest of the cast…Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter were as delightfully wicked as the Thenardiers as I expected them to be. They brought a much-needed levity to the film, especially after I was crushed with feels by Fantine’s death. Little Cosette was precious and beautiful and looked eeirely like Amanda Seyfried, so well done casting folks. Speaking of Seyfried, she is absolutely GORGEOUS in the film, but like her performance in Mamma Mia, her voice is awfully thin and reedy. BUT she was able to hit that note at the end of “A Heart Full of Love” and that chord is one of my favorite things in the whole show, so that made me happy. Samantha Barks, Aaron Tveit and all of the students (many of whom were actors from the still running production on the West End) continued to make a strong case for WHY we should continue to cast theatre actors in movie musicals. I thought Eddie Redmayne was a fantastic Marius and was one of the true revelations of the film. If you don’t get choked up during his “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables” you may need to get your head examined.
Is the film perfect? No. Tom Hooper is a bit too in love with the 45 degree camera tilt and tight close-up shots of all his actors, which started to make me a little nuts by the end. The editing is a bit choppy in some places, and there were a few things that were cut that had me internally screaming…mainly the intro to “On My Own” and the entire middle of “A Little Fall of Rain.” Is Hooper an Eponine hater??? I need to see it in a theatre with a better sound system (Ahem. Going to the Ziegfeld as soon as I get back to NYC) because the sound in my screening was a bit lacking, and I need to hear it again, as I was missing the LUSH orchestrations I am so used to and I am curious to see if it was just the theatre I was in. But for every choice I disagreed with, there were more that I agreed with: the moving of “I Dreamed a Dream” and “Do You Hear The People Sing?” made both songs WAY more effective. There are also some lovely/subtle nods to the original staging of the show that I will not give away here, but we can discuss in the comments if you spot them.
And THAT FINALE. You could hear people openly weeping throughout my screening. They freaking nailed it. I was blubbering like an idiot. And holding back the urge to sing along. So…mission accomplished.
“Will you join in our crusade? Who will be strong and stand with me?
Somewhere beyond the barricade is there a world you long to see?
Do you hear the people sing? Say do you hear the distant drums?
It is the future that they bring when tomorrow comes!”