I have never seen the musical Les Miserables. I’ve never actually seen any film or stage representation before. I have however read, and deeply loved, the book by Victor Hugo.*
(*I recently discovered, to my horror, that the version I read so long ago was, in fact, abridged. So I may have to read it again when I have a month to spare.)
So my expectations were medium to high going into the recent Les Miserables film. I can say that while I didn’t love it, I liked it quite a bit. There are times when it creaks. It has a very serious editing problem, with lots of rapid cuts that distract from the sumptuous visuals, the serviceable singing and the excellent acting.
But this is compensated for by the things the films gets right. The art direction is fantastic; 19th century Paris is recreated so well I felt like I needed antibiotics. The music is fine. I’m not as enamored of the score as most fan but it gets good when there is polyphony. The story, while stripped to its bare bones, retains the most important parts including the emotional wallop at the end. And the acting is uniformly good. Les Miserables has a great ensemble cast. One particular performance of note is that of Sacha Baron Cohen. His singing is OK, but his acting is a lot of fun. Between this and Hugo, he’s showing the makings of an excellent and versatile supporting actor. The more he does this and the less he does his characters, the happier I’ll be.
The thing I kept thinking as I watched it, however, was that I wished it weren’t a musical. I’m not slamming the music or anything. As I said, it works great sometimes. And Les Miserables is such a massive sprawling tale that perhaps musical numbers are the only way to advance the plot and the emotional threads fast enough to squeeze it into three hours. But I think the spectacle and the singing sort of take away from the excellent actors that populate the film. Many of the film’s flaws — Hooper’s preference for quick cuts and extreme closeups — are the result of doing it as pure musical rather than pure drama or drama punctuated by the occasional song. A distillation of this problem can be found in Russell Crowe. Many critics napalmed his singing. I found that he lacked dynamic range but was perfectly adequate. His flaws as a singer only stand out because the rest of the cast are better. But the complaints about his perfectly serviceable singing distract from his excellent acting. A little less singing and a little more acting and he would really have nailed Javert. The same can be said for many of the cast. Only Redmayne, Barks and perhaps Jackman are really able to pull off the singing and acting simultaneously.
One thing Hooper did right, however, was record the singing during filming. There is verisimilitude to the singing that is unique. Sometimes it’s distracting — Jackman in particular has a tendency to sing with a very open mouth. But I’m hoping the technique can be refined in the future because it really works much better than lip-synching.
Overall, I would probably give it a 8/10. I have to think about it a little bit. I love the story so dearly that the film redeems its sins with the occasional great moment.