Les Miserables

Part of me is glad I put off writing this post, because I don’t feel like I need to give an exhaustive review of the movie.  It’s been out long enough that plenty of other people have written far better blog posts about it, and the majority of my readers have hopefully already seen it.

I’ve seen it twice, and I’m perfectly open to seeing it a third time.  I don’t think I’ve seen a movie three times in the theatre since Beauty and the Beast. So ultimately you know where I stand regarding this film.

I told my sister and brother-in-law they had to see it.  I knew they would be a harder sell than I was, because Jill has read the book, Patrick is reading the book, and both of them have seen the show approximately fifty times between seeing it live, on PBS, and via various YouTube clips.  They know who has played which role in the various Anniversary additions (ask Patrick sometime what he thinks of Marius in the 25th Anniversary…) and they have dissected the lyrics of the major pieces.  (At least Stars.)

But I still insisted they see it, even though I knew Jill would be disappointed in her favorite song (more about that later).

I was anxious to hear their review, and it was pretty much what I expected.  They were happy when things that were added incorporated little bits from the book (the buying of the doll for Cosette, for example), but disappointed when the things added contradicted the book (the meeting of Valjean and Cosette in the woods).  Jill pointed out the absurdity of the last scene, when everyone is waving guns… in heaven.  I agreed with that — although it was really the waving of the tricolor that irked me more.  And being very familiar with the musical, they noticed when songs were out of order or shortened.  I noticed to some extent, and we all knew they had to do something or the movie would have lasted five hours.  (If you see it live on stage, the tempo of songs is pretty quick in order to get it all in.  With the added scenes, if the songs were sung the way they were in the movie and in their entirety, the movie would have been a BBC miniseries.)

They also changed some lines in the some of the songs, which I hadn’t noticed, but once she mentioned one of them, I became just as upset as she was!  I need to go back to see it for myself.

It is very different seeing the movie than seeing it on stage, partly because the movie brings you into the dirt of the miserable ones in a way the stage can’t.    I’m not sure you can get more depressing than prison, starvation, prostitution, profligate living, poverty, sickness, death, and loss of innocence.  Oh, and sewers.   Life is awful.  And without God, life would be unbearable.  And the movie brings that right in your face.

They didn’t shy away from the message of the film… I’m not sure how you could have, but I wasn’t going to put it past modern society.  But it’s there.  And Tom Hooper didn’t try to hide it at all.  There aren’t many movies that make me want to stand up and clap afterwards.  This one did just that.

Was it perfect? No.  There were definitely things I would have changed.  But it had so much to live up to in my mind, the fact that it fulfilled my expectations is no small feat.

Since this post is long, for the faint-of-heart, I will cut to the chase here: Go see this film.

Okay, let’s continue.

When I saw Les Mis live on stage, I Dreamed a Dream was a disappointment.  Being an alto myself, most alto solos have a lot to live up to in my mind.  It’s not that I think “I could do better,” but I’m a bit protective of the solos, few as they are.  Plus, with the ones I’ve sung myself, like IDAD, being overly familiar with them means I’m more critical than I might be with others.  (Sort of like Jill and the entire movie. haha.)

So I was nervous.  Anne Hathaway? Really?

Ha.  Do not fear. She was brilliant.

She takes away any expectation you might have by singing it in a way you’ve never seen it sung before.

Did she hit every low note?  No.  Does it matter?  NO.  Why?  Because she was Fantine.

Her solo, more than any other, was sung with such passion, the fact that she’s not a trained singer didn’t matter.  She’s not a trained singer, she’s a woman at the edge of desperation, staring into darkness.  She has known happiness and halcyon days, and that heightens the present suffering.

Many of the musical numbers are this way (although no other to the extent of IDAD) — the passion shows through the music, making the piece less about the proper tone, voice quality, notes, and more about the scene, the lyrics, the emotion.  The music really was a vehicle to express the emotion of the lyrics.  So the singers may be nasally at times, for example, but it was somehow more forgivable in context.

For many of us, Les Mis songs are familiar not in the context of the show, but because of their presence at a high school concert, an audition, American Idol, a coffeehouse/talent show, etc.

Typically, you hear IDAD sung by the alto in the show choir who has a beautiful voice but is never getting that lead in the high school musical because, well, she’s an alto.  “Here is Mary Sue singing I Dreamed a Dream, followed by Betty Smith on the violin, and then Billy Jones will tap dance…”

But Hathaway’s performance was not going to be followed up by Pachelbel’s Canon on violin.  It was heart-wrenching.  She wasn’t singing a nice musical solo.  She was crying out as Fantine.

And this is one of the the things that makes Crowe’s musical performance slightly underwhelming. (I’m trying to be nice here.)  Hathaway had already shown us that you didn’t need to be a Broadway performer to pull it off.  Could Crowe follow her lead?

Nope.  In Stars, which is one of the best songs in the whole show, he transported us back to that high school auditorium.  It was almost as if he spent the whole show trying to hit his notes and forgot his passion.  You could have followed up his performance of Stars with some sophomore girl singing Summertime.

Maybe it was a matter of Stars being directed incorrectly, but I didn’t see a man passionately in pursuit of justice.  In fact, if it wasn’t for his ubiquity throughout the movie, you might not have known how adamant Javert was to catch Jean Valjean.

Stars isn’t the song of a man who is on the fence about his pursuit.  There’s no wavering.  I guess part of the error is in the directing — why was he so wishy-washy?  Check out the lyrics… this is a man whose whole life is based on seeing justice fulfilled — no understanding of mercy, of repentance, of the fact that a man can change.  In the movie, Javert leaves the crucifix to go outside — he turns from the greatest sign of mercy to sing to nature — unwavering, predictable stars.

You know your place in the sky
You hold your course and your aim
And each in your season
Returns and returns
And is always the same

And if they aren’t?  well…

And if you fall as Lucifer fell
You fall in flame!

When that is challenged– when Jean Valjean shows him that man can change, that God is mercy, Javert can’t stand it.  He can’t live in “the world of Jean Valjean.”  At different points in the musical, both men are given back their lives, both are given freedom… and the men make very different decisions at those crossroads. (See “Who am I” and “Javert’s Suicide.”  Note that Javert’s song ends on a discordant note…)

Sadly, these three scenes should be the most powerful parts of the musical (Who Am I, Stars, and Javert’s suicide)… and they fall short.

One of my favorite scenes (besides On My Own, which again, being an alto solo, needed to live up to my expectations — and did!) was Marius’ Empty Chairs at Empty Tables.  I thought Marius was very well cast and ended up being one of my favorite characters.

I think what really moved me during Empty Chairs, especially when I saw it the second time, was thinking about a friend of mine who lost his friends in combat.  We tend to forget about our young veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan… how many young men in that theatre with me could have sung that same song?

All in all, I would definitely recommend seeing Les Mis.  I know some things could have been done better, and I would have cast someone else as Javert.  Namely, Hadley Fraser.  He has played various roles on stage, including the best Raoul I’ve ever seen (25th Anniversary of Phantom of the Opera) and Grantaire in Les Mis’ 25th Anniversary.  He was in the movie, playing the role of the army officer at the barricade, and during the final battle gets to sing five lines.  Those are some of the best lines you’ll hear sung by a man in the entire movie, with an exception of the magnificent Colm Wilkinson (the Bishop), whose performance should have moved you to weep.  While I was happy Hadley was at least in the movie, his performance (of those five lines), made me depressed thinking about what could have been.  Alas.  Tom Hooper didn’t ask me.

But again, I would highly recommend seeing the movie.  I don’t feel like this long blog post has done it justice at all… but I’m still pushing “publish.”


6 thoughts on “Les Miserables

  1. – I was so relieved by Hathaway’s Fantine because I had feared for the worst: Princess of the Diary taking on Broadway. But she was, in fact, excellent. My previous exposures to Fantine gave me the impression of someone old and coarse. Hathaway reminded me that Fantine was still a young woman. It made her wounds seem more fresh.

    – I had the exact same thoughts with Marius and ‘Empty Chairs.’

    – I have no room to make any complaints about the movie because of this: I can’t think of another movie of its scale and star power that dared to highlight Christ the way it did. It was so bold for a film of that class.

    • joanallegretti says:

      I believe we had the same friend in mind for Marius’ song. I hope he doesn’t mind that I consider him a friend.

      your third comment- absolutely. magnificent.

  2. Jill says:

    Thank you for exposing my psycho-nerdiness to the world. On the other hand, now I don’t feel pressured to blog about it myself! haha

  3. Just saw the movie last night. I was thinking about your post here because it’s the only review I had read. Oh man, did Anne Hathaway do a great job as Fantine! Wow.

    Did it bother anyone else that Hugh Jackman just doesn’t sing very well? I thought Bring Him Home was awful. He acted the part well but didn’t sing it well. This bothered me more than Crowe’s singling/acting of Javert. But then, I’m not very familiar with the musical or the book. I want to read the book now.

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