Ever try to summarize the plot of the musical Les Miserables to anyone who hasn’t seen it? It’s great fun. You say something like this:
“It’s about a man back in 19th century France. He steals some bread because his family is poor and ends up going to jail for almost 20 years. When he’s released, he goes onto parole and can’t find work or society that cares about him because nobody trusts a paroled convict. The only person to show him any kindness is priest, who feeds him and takes care of him. But in the night, he gives into his baser instincts and steals some of the silver plates. The police catch him and return him. Because he’s a paroled convict, this means for sure he’ll go back to jail, probably forever. However, amazingly, the priest lies to the police, telling them he gave the man the silver, and then he also gives him some valuable silver candlesticks as well. He then challenges the man to use this money to make something worthwhile of his life. After wrestling, the man decides to tear up his parole papers and establish himself as an honest and respectable citizen.”
Then you pause, and after a second you add:
“And that’s the end of the prologue, or the first 15 minutes.”
Anybody whose interest you’ve kept will be pretty impressed.
I first saw the show back in 1990 (I’ve deduced), with my mother, I think. I had been a bit skeptical about it after a friend had tried to explain the plot to me, but the experience of watching it on Broadway pretty much blew me away. The version I saw co-starred my favorite Broadway performer, Laurie Beechman, as Fantine, and it quickly became my favorite musical (replacing Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, which I’d also seen with Laurie Beechman).
Sometime after that, I acquired a soundtrack for the show – not the original London recording, nor the original Broadway one, but rather The Complete Symphonic Recording, which features the show’s entire libretto, sung by performers from around the world edited together, including Japanese singer Kaho Shimada, who apparently sings the role of Eponine completely phonetically. Ever since then, I’ve listened to the music countless times, often full of deep emotions, and often visualizing in my head what a movie of this version of the famous story would look like.
And now I’ve seen it.
Not surprisingly, it doesn’t look exactly like I imagined it could have. How could it have? But nonetheless, it’s pretty darn impressive. Visually, it’s grand, bouncing between naturalism and stage-like stylization. Musically, it’s got the same orchestral score that we all know, with a variety of changes here and there – usually to either clarify elements of the plot or to keep the movie from being 4 hours long. Also, so that they could include an original song – a necessity if we want the movie to have a shot at a Best Song Oscar nomination (it worked).
As has been widely reported, director Tom Hooper used a technique for the entire movie where the actors did not record their songs in advance, and then lip-synch to them when filming, but rather recorded every song live on the set. Apparently, the actors had earpieces that allowed them to listen to a live piano to help them stay on key, and the piano playing then followed the tempo and pacing of their performance. Then, I suppose, the score had to be recorded so that it suited as well. Anyway, my verdict of this massive experiment, never before attempted on such a large scale, is that it worked. By and large, the performances are outstanding. I’m thinking largely of the acting when I say this – a lot of the major solos (eg. I Dreamed a Dream, On My Own) are done largely in one continuous take, which definitely helps lock us into the characters and depth of their emotions. Anne Hathaway has earned a lot of justifiable praise, but really everyone is good. I became a particular fan of Samantha Barks, who have never heard of but who apparently is in something called Groove High, which I have also never heard of. There is some singing here and there that is perhaps a bit more uneven than you’d expect on a professional stage, but in a movie full of these natural voices, it works for to me.
Now, I’m obviously highly cued to appreciate this, as a big fan of the musical. But my friend who has worked extensively in stage theatre (and thus has actually worked on a stage version of Les Mieserables, though not on Broadway) and is also a fan of the musical, made the comment that this play would have been better off remaining on the stage. Of course, she has a perspective that I do not, but I can’t really understand the sentiment. It may not be the perfect adaptation of the show (because really, you never get a perfect adaptation of anything – not even the really long version of Pride and Prejudice) but it’s a far sight better than no adaptation, and gives a whole new slice of humanity a chance to enjoy this rich rendition of a powerful story. I have another friend who is not particularly familiar with the musical, who found that it somehow wavered between fully being a movie and being a filmed stage play (I think I’m interpreting his comment correctly) but I don’t really accept that either. It’s actually quite a cinematic interpretation, taking me places that the stage production was never able to – even with it’s brilliant circular stage and lighting design.
As a fan of the stage show, I of course do have my little preferences here and there – things I wish they hadn’t changed or wish they’d done differently. I also found some of the changes and directing choices worked very well. Here’s a sampling of my thoughts:
• Wish they’d included the full versions of both Come to Me and A Little Fall of Rain. Both songs are abridged slightly. I love both moments and wish they’d included it all, especially with Eponine’s death.
• Loved the confrontation between Valjean and Javert, but wish Valjean had escaped by overpowering Javert, rather than by making a quick jump into the river, and creating a mild sort of foreshadowing to Javert’s eventual fate.
• With they’d included Eponine alongside Fantine at the end as Valjean was dying. I know it’s not as dramatically justified, but I love the musical moment in the show where the two voices are suddenly harmonizing together.
• I appreciate the fact that the movie portrays prostitution as such a miserable profession.
• Speaking of which, shifting the placement of I Dreamed a Dream until after Fantin’s degradation in Lovely Ladies works very well.
• Being familiar with the entirety of the originally show, I noticed when little lines here or there were skipped over. It sounded to me like they were probably recorded and then edited out to find ways to shorten the film. I’ve no idea if that is true, but it was a bit distracting.
• Found the inclusion of some regular dialog jarring at first, but quickly got used it. I’m sure it’s no less jarring that people who don’t know beforehand suddenly realizing this is basically a sung-through musical.
• As much as I enjoyed the performances that came through with the film’s style, I think the free-wheeling steadicam style could have been dialed back a bit.
• I wasn’t crazy about using Do You Hear the People Sing? as the Gavroche-led emotional pick-me-up later in the movie. However, I think that moving it’s original position to right before the barricades go up, using it to represent the growing discontent and unification amongst the people, was a stroke of cinematic genius.
I was never interested enough in Watchmen to be even remotely tempted to watch the 215 minute long “Ultimate Cut”. I’m not even particularly wanting to spend the time watching the Extended Versions of the Lord of the Rings movies, and I did like those. But man, I think if they released a version four hour of Les Miserables (as it apparently was originally edited), I might have to seek that out. So yeah, I guess I loved it. I know, I know, I was predisposed to like it. But then I was predisposed to like Green Lantern as well, and that didn’t help.
(I say this even though I have two friends who have expressed dissatisfaction, but for most people, I think they’d probably like it. Unless they are automatically turned off of musicals, and in that case it sort of violates my rating rules anyway)