Do You Hear the People Sing?Posted: January 4, 2013
I’m going to say this up front: when I saw Les Miserables, I cried like a baby through the whole thing. I’m man enough to admit it. You’d pretty much have to have a heart of stone not to. I’ve been in love with the music of Les Mis for about twenty years, but I’ve never had a chance to see it in person (and the half staged, half not production they run perennially on PBS every time they need to shake loose a few more nickels doesn’t count either). I’m trying to convey the extremely high expectations and hopes I had going into this film before you read any further.
That having been said, if you haven’t seen this movie yet, I suggest you stop reading, buy a ticket to the next showing, and go out to see it. It’s really that good. The first word to come to mind after it was over was “epic”. If there was a chance in hell of a musical being nominated for a Best Picture Oscar, this would be the one. Certainly there are more than a few deserved nominations to go around.
First, the cinematography is stunning. Rather than simply transporting the stage show to film, cinematographer Danny Cohen uses the film medium to create a complete and compelling world full of vivid and rich imagery and (here’s that word again) epic scale. The staging of every scene is perfect, vast and overwhelming in the prison yard, majestic and beautiful when looking out over the rooftops of Paris, and time and confining when having a sword-fight in a hospital.
One of the great strengths of film over stage is the ability to do close-ups, to bring intimacy with the performers that simply isn’t available even in a black box performance (and who ever heard of Les Mis being done in a black box, anyway?), and director Tom Hooper does an excellent job of utilizing the various levels of intimacy available to draw more out of the characters than would otherwise be possible. The sets are also much more flexible, and the use of space is often fun and agile without feeling “dancy” or overblown. Most of all was the unique decision to film with live singing rather than a playback, which gives even more of a sense of intimacy and believability to the moments in the film; there is none of the traditional sense of “let’s all suddenly break into song!” associated with movie musicals, but rather a natural transition in and out of music that lends itself to a perfect suspension of disbelief.
There were also some key decisions made in terms of what material to include and what to cut, but they were done with a careful eye toward shaping a coherent narrative, and unless one of your favorite songs is missing I doubt you will even notice (unless like me you absolutely despise one of the songs that got trimmed back, in which case you might even cheer a bit.)
The bulk of my praise however (and this might just be my own personal tastes coming out) is going to go to the actors.
First and foremost I can’t say enough about Anne Hathaway as Fantine. I’ve never been all that fond of Fantine as a character (again, I’ve only ever really known the music), as I found her to be at best a plot device and not especially sympathetic. Well voiced? Certainly. Someone to care about? Not really. Hathaway changed that completely. She brought a tragic dignity to the role it always lacked for me before, and my heart ached for her every moment. Her decent from factory worker to her final moments is brought to painful life by a performance that by itself deserves an Oscar. Add onto that her amazing performance of “I Dreamed a Dream”, and if she doesn’t at least get nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Oscar, there will be a riot in Hollywood. In this performance she showed that it is possible to both sing beautifully and emote, while most actors struggle to do either one.
Standing in contrast to Hathaway’s performance, but still just as moving and powerful in its own way, is Hugh Jackman as Jean Valjean. Whether because he is playing to a camera rather than an entire theater or simply as a matter of character choice, Jackman dials down Valjean from the more grandiose figure he is traditionally presented as. This fits the narrative of the story better, as well as allowing his co-stars to bring their own performances down to a more empathetic level. While I myself have always loved (and sympathized with) Valjean, it takes a great deal of skill to show that level of restraint with the character, especially when he brings forth his characteristic passion in occasional moments of brilliance.
The rest of the cast vary from good to great, but I want to give some special words of praise to a few who either made me care about their characters more than I expected to, or who managed to rise above my expectations of their abilities.
Sacha Baron Cohen as Thenardier and Helena Bonham Carter as Madame Thenardier – I love these characters and I most assuredly do not love these performers, so I was shocked when I saw their names in the credits. While I wasn’t thrilled with all the choices made around their roles, I loved everything they did with their roles. Don’t know that it’s worth an Oscar, but certainly worth a Golden Globe nomination.
Samantha Barks as Eponine – Until I saw this movie Eponine was at best a throw away plot device, at worst an annoying roadblock of a plot device. Ms. Barks changed all of that. She made Eponine charming, warm, relatable, and in the end another wonderfully tragic figure. Again, I don’t know that she rose to the level of Oscar nomination, but she definitely deserves a Golden Globe.
Daniel Huttlestone as Gavroche – I have always vacillated back and forth between being irritated by Gavroche because I don’t know what to do with him and simply despising him for being a waste of time and space. Young Master Huttlestone has completely changed my mind, bringing courage, dignity and charm to an otherwise forgettable character. I wouldn’t be surprised to see him getting a Golden Globe nomination for Best Supporting Actor, and even a dark horse candidate for an Oscar nomination.
Now, if you still haven’t seen the movie, what are you waiting for? Will you join in our crusade? Who will be strong and stand with me? Beyond the barricade there’s a movie you’ve just got to see.