True confession: This musicals buff has never seen Les Misérables onstage. Well, not entirely, anyway. Years ago, when it was still on Broadway (its 1987-2003 run was the fourth longest of any show, behind The Phantom of the Opera, Cats, and Chicago) and I was employed by a theatrical trade publication, I was asked to write about its revamped sound system. Off I went to hear it in action, and afterwards I was invited to watch the rest of the performance. After a decent interval, I crept out; I’d missed a lot, and by and large I’m not the biggest fan of sung-through musicals, a fraternity that includes Cats, Evita, Jesus Christ Superstar, and Les Miz creators Schönberg and Boublil’s other blockbuster, Miss Saigon.
I lacked vision. But I wasn’t alone. As Les Miz fever swept the globe following its 1985 debut in the West End, Alan Parker was asked to submit his “vision” for a film adaptation. “I had none,” he confessed. (No stranger to musicals, he and Madonna would make a fine one of Evita in 1996.) And there it sat, vision-less. Understood: It’s a fat slab of thunderous musical theatre, replete with Victor Hugo’s mistaken and assumed identities, blood, prostitutes, revolution, excrement, and a cast in rags. Plus bullet-ridden dead kids, whom the critics who carp about torture in Zero Dark Thirty give a pass to, maybe because they’re French, and sing. Merry fucking Christmas. But homilies to man’s better angels abound, and a bazillion viewers have paid theatre prices to genuflect. Les Miz was les must for the movies.
Enter Tom Hooper, the Oscar-winning director of The King’s Speech, and the perfect man for Les Misérables, as he has no vision. Not an auteurist vision, anyway, nothing for all-seeing producer Cameron Mackintosh to worry about; Hooper wasn’t about to relocate the storyline to the moon, or shoot in hobbity 48fps 3D, or do anything to distract from the Les Mizness of the beloved property. He respects the text. He has cast it well. He has gotten out of its way. And he has come up with a screen Les Miz that works splendidly–or as splendidly as a movie of Les Miz could ever work.
We begin in 1815, as…oh, forget it, I’m not paid enough to summarize 160 minutes or so of historical pageantry. You’ve probably read the book or seen at least one of the thirty other versions listed in the Internet Movie Database, maybe Bille August’s pretty good 1998 one, with Liam Neeson as the virtuous Valjean and Geoffrey Rush as the vindictive Javert (which is now on Blu-ray), Raymond Bernard’s outstanding full course version from 1936, with Harry Baur (a Criterion Eclipse title on DVD), or Claude Lelouch’s intriguing (and sadly unavailable) 1995 meditation on the text, with Jean-Paul Belmondo. But none of them begin with a chain-ganged Hugh Jackman pulling a ship into harbor and singing, as water cascades into his face. Much has been made of the live recording of the songs for the movie, a choice that defeated director Peter Bogdanovich and Cybill Shepherd in the 1975 flop At Long Last Love and halted their careers. Here the immediacy works–you are there with Jackman and his co-stars as bullets, fists, and swords whiz about. Contemporary film audiences are said to resist book musical adaptations because characters bursting into song is unnatural (morons, say I, lovingly); that’s not a problem when everyone sings all the time, and suspense builds as we wonder what will happen next to throw them off cue.
No one falters, not completely. Jackman is the only star who could have played Valjean, and while I hope a more upbeat and danceable musical will be found for him in the movies (he is on fire onstage), he grabs the part with both hands and never lets go of our attention or affection. (Colm Wilkinson, the Valjean for theatre audiences, has the passing-of-the-candlesticks role of the inspirational bishop.) Likewise Anne Hathaway, who as the doomed Fantine had an Oscar nomination sewed up from the first note of “I Dreamed a Dream,” as Danny Cohen’s camera goes in for a plaintive closeup. Reunited from Sweeney Todd (2007), Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen provide Sweeney-ish turns as the grasping Thénardiers, playing these rapscallions mostly for laughs. In the third hour the cast grows to accommodate two revolutionaries, Marius (Eddie Redmayne, showing musical chops) and Enjorlas (Aaron Tveit, plucked, wisely, from Broadway), with the former entwined in the already fraught destinies of Cosette (Amanda Seyfried, lovely and lilting), Valjean’s ward, and Eponine (newcomer Samantha Barks, pictured above), the Thénardiers’ ignored daughter. Victor Hugo determined Marius’s choice, but keep an eye out for the bewitching Barks, who would be ideal for a remake of, say, The Vampire Lovers if Hammer Films decides to go in that direction. (Insert wolf whistle here.)
And what of Russell Crowe as Javert? True, he sings as if an oxygen tank is positioned just offscreen, should the effort prove too much. But it’s not a Lee Marvin/Paint Your Wagon disaster, more like Oliver Reed’s lusty vocalizing in Tommy, and the score is pitched too high for him. (Jackman strains, too.) Yet it doesn’t matter–Javert, the lawman, who wears his uniform like body armor, is one of the great characters of literature, and Crowe has the force of personality necessary to bring him off the page and stage. His rendition of “Stars,” Javert’s signature song, may not be the greatest–but he feels every lyric, and you feel them, too. I liked him enormously in the part.
Really, aside from some budget-conscious CGI and the inherent, inescapable staginess of some of the material, there’s little I disliked about Les Misérables, including the sweet “Suddenly,” a new, awards-bait song for Jackman. “Like” is the qualifier; I wasn’t transported by it, which may be my sung-through bias peeking through. (The lyrics are asked to do too much, and the storyline blurs.) In a challenged era for stage-to-screen musicals, it’s not, however, miserable, and that is enough.