By: Jonathan Richards Published online: Friday, December 21, 2012 Appeared in: Pasateimpo
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The stage musical version
of Victor Hugo’s great novel is the longest-
running musical of all time. It has been seen by
more than 60 million people in all sorts of languages
and countries. This movie could put an end to all that.
In the hands of director Tom Hooper, who guided
The King’s Speech with such subtlety and grace, it is
garish, shrill, and breathtakingly over the top. The
songs are still there, up close and personal like you’ve
never seen and heard them, and be careful what you
wish for. The cast (headed by Hugh Jackman and
Russell Crowe) performs bravely, if not always wisely
or too well. Opens Tuesday, Dec. 25. Rated PG-13.
Les Misérables, musical, rated PG,
Regal Stadium 14, onion
I should begin with a disclaimer. I am not among
those who love Les Misérables — the stage musical,
not Victor Hugo’s great novel of crime, punishment,
and redemption. I saw a production of the Claude-Michel Schonberg/Alain Boubil musical years ago
when the play was in its infancy, only beginning its
gargantuan rise on its way to become “the world’s
longest running musical, seen by over 60 million
people,” as the film’s website proclaims. They used
to say 60 million Frenchmen couldn’t be wrong.
I don’t think they still say that. In any case, these
can’t all be Frenchmen.
I saw a performance of Les Misérables from the last
rows of a vast auditorium in Los Angeles, and I was
inclined to make allowances for my disappointment
on the grounds that not much could be expected
from that distance. It seemed like a bunch of people
stomping around a postage-stamp stage in the semi-darkness singing urgent, endless, unmemorable
songs. If I had seen it from the expensive seats,
I thought, it might have held up better.
Now I have seen the movie, and I realize what
a bullet I dodged back then. The close-ups! The
prosthetic veins standing out on Hugh Jackman’s
forehead! The tears and mucous glistening on Anne
Hathaway’s face below a skull of brutally hacked
hair! Russell Crowe’s grim brooding stare as he
gamely pushes uncertain sounds from his untrained
throat! And all this magnified to several stories of
height and acres of breadth on an enormous screen;
well, it’s something to threaten with to keep unruly
children in line.
The Les Misérables musical is much beloved,
and love is a thing that can’t be explained. But to
the ear tuned to the works of Cole Porter, Frank
Loesser, and Stephen Sondheim, it comes as chalk
on a blackboard to hear a lyric like: “Well, of course
he now denies it,/You’d expect that of a con,/But he
couldn’t run forever,/No, not even Jean Valjean!”
The bones of Hugo’s stirring epic find the convict
Jean Valjean (Jackman) serving out a sentence of 20
years at hard labor in the prison galleys — five years
for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his sister’s starving
family, the rest tacked on for attempts to escape.
Paroled, but unable to find work or shelter because
of his convict’s passport, he steals the church silver
from a priest who has shown him kindness. When
he is apprehended, the priest tells the police he
gave Valjean the silver, sparing him from a return to
prison for life.
It is impossible here to sum up the serpentine
twists and turns of one of literature’s greatest, and
longest, novels. Valjean changes identity, becomes
a respected citizen, adopts Cosette, the child of
the dying Fantine (Hathaway), raises her to lovely
womanhood as his beloved daughter (Amanda
Seyfried), selflessly saves the unfortunate, but
cannot escape his past. He is pursued by Inspector
Javert (Crowe), an obsessive instrument of the law
for whom the word implacable might have been
coined. The Paris student revolt of 1832 erupts,
Cosette falls in love with one of its leaders, Marius
(Eddie Redmayne), a lot of people are killed, and
much misery is endured before it all rolls, tragically
but happily, to a close.
The Hugo story is a cherished classic. But the
execution here, in the hands of director Tom Hooper,
who guided The King’s Speech with such subtlety
and grace, is garish, shrill, and breathtakingly over
the top. Hooper never misses a chance to worship at
the shrine of the obvious, from the bearded Valjean
silhouetted beneath a cross on a Calvary-like hill to
a plucky urchin dying on the barricades.
One of the ballyhooed features of this production
is that it presents its singing (and it is virtually
all singing) live — which is to say that the actors
perform the songs directly in front of the cameras,
not lip-synching to recording studio-produced
efforts as is the traditional practice. This does give
immediacy to the performances, but it also exposes
the weaknesses of the voices, even the good ones,
and they’re not all good. Crowe in particular suffers
from this lack of cover. Jackman, with his musical-theater roots, probably fares the best, although they
all hit some notes that will set your teeth on edge.
Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter
provide the comic relief, such as it is, in the form of
the unscrupulous innkeepers the Thénardiers, roles
they attack with such unrestrained gusto that it
becomes an avalanche of elements of Sweeney Todd,
Cinderella, and the Three Stooges.
It may be that the stage musical’s legions of fans
will embrace this movie in spite of its grievous short-
comings. The songs that thrilled those 60 million are
still there, up close and personal like you’ve never
seen and heard them, and be careful what you wish
for. The cast performs bravely, if not always wisely or
too well. Hathaway sacrifices her hair and a few teeth
in a grand gesture of selflessness, although her return
at the end will reassure audiences that hair continues
to grow, and be groomed, after death.