Of all the "big eighties" musicals (Phantom, Cats, Dreamgirls, etc), I've long suspected that Les Miserables is the best known and least understood of the bunch. More than the others - only Phantom really comes close - Les Miz isn't really so much a traditional musical comedy as much as it is light opera, a style very popular early on in American musical theater, but that eventually got subsumed into the opera houses of most of America (along with Gilbert and Sullivan and Porgy and Bess). Light operas and operettas were the sort of thing Nelson Eddy and Jeanette MacDonald did for MGM, where there was a lot of emphatic singing and usually little spoken dialogue, but it didn't quite qualify as "serious" opera because they were more recent, and tended towards more popular melodies.
Few people get that Les Miserables, in French, was originally more of a song cycle with some staging, before Cameron Mackintosh swept the whole thing up, translated it into English and gave it an elaborate staging in London. Even then, the initial reaction to it as a piece of theater was as more of an event, not easily categorized as traditional, straight musical theater. As it made its way to Broadway, Les Miz became treated more conventionally, even though, as a show, it actually has next to no spoken dialogue, is mostly sung-through, and relies heavily on recitative as well as traditional "numbers," which often function, in the show, more as solo arias, or duets and trios, amongst main characters. It's a short hop, really, from Les Miz to La Boheme, shorter than the hop to, say, a Phantom. The musical themes assemble and reassemble in the different numbers, and the show's first act closer, "One Day More," gradually blends the different threads preceding it into a stunning thematic whole.
Thus, in some ways, it's unfair to come to Les Miz expecting the familiar contours of the form that's been identified, since World War 2, as the American musical comedy. Les Miz is more thematically dense, more musically demanding, even if it does not, fully, fit the form of conventional opera. More than any show in recent memory, it is a singer's show - it requires, first, singers who can act more than actors who can sing (never mind dancers; the show is almost entirely free of traditional choreography). Arguably, Les Miserables has attained its cult status, and its rabid fan base by being staged as a musical, while playing to its operatic pretensions.
And so Les Miz arrives on film, proving that it still has worlds to conquer, its operatic pretensions in place, its place in pop culture secure. Tom Hooper's adaptation is all the junkies could expect - big, bold, brash and full of soaring musical moments. However well made, it cannot entirely mask the show's book flaws, and while visually magnificent, it can often feel somewhat less than the sum of its parts. And as always, the show rises and falls, most, on the strengths and weaknesses of its singers.
Many have argued that the film's weakest link is Russell Crowe as Javert, obviously the most actorly of the film's lead singers. Crowe has worked hard, and he does have singing experience (a band with him and his brothers is big in Australia), but his limited range is apparent, and at times he does struggle. But I think Crowe is being sold short for what he brings as an actor (and then too, the part of Javert is easy to treat harshly). At his best - his version of Stars, or Javert's eventual death scene - Crowe wisely undersings and retains the humanity of his character where others would go for bombast, or reach for the rafters. Crowe knows film well enough to understand its intimacy, and he connects with the camera in ways that others don't do quite as well. It's an idiosyncratic, star turn performance that works more than it doesn't.
On the other hand, there's Hugh Jackman, muscling his way through Jean Valjean with his usual scene chewing, always "on" qualities, who seems genuinely miscast. Valjean is the show's most brutal part, a screamingly high tenor role where the singer has to hit the highest notes with a full on belt. It's a singing skill that really encompasses a handful of men (there have been, I think, maybe 8-10 Valjeans on Broadway in the life of the show)... and Jackman just isn't one of them. It's painful, really, to see the vocal strain as he tries to put over crucial numbers, none more so than the cruelly high "Bring Him Home." Lord knows, Jackman's qualities of pure showmanship can overcome most obstacles... but a note out of reach doesn't magically get reachable. And his acting can only take that so far.
The film starts with Valjean being paroled after 19 years in hard labor for stealing a loaf of bread during the French Revolution. Unfortuately, his parole makes him (shades of today) a virtual persona non grata in civilized society, and so he faces an agonizing (those notes!) dilemma of turning to crime or hiding in a new identitity. Assuming a fake name and a false identity, Valjean becomes a town mayor and factory owner, where a young woman named Fantine loses her job when the other women turn on her because of the foreman's obvious preference for her good looks. This leads Fantine on her own downward spiral, which she describes in her number "I Dreamed A Dream."
Anne Hathaway's appearance, 20 minutes in (she's gone by about 20 minutes later) is the film's down payment on greatness, and Hathaway shines so bright the effect is nearly mesmerizing. Gaunt and grim, she slogs her way through Fantine's travails, and though she's not the vocally strongest Fantine (Patti Lupone, for Christ's sake, was the original), Hathaway has that quality I've only seen in Marion Cotillard on film, of truly being able to act a song so thoroughly, all other doubts wash away. Bewildered, hurt, scared and desperate... all of this and more plays across her face as she attacks the song, sometimes letting emotion overwhelm her notes, other times, hitting them all the harder and more accurately to let the music do its job. Her performance is the most solid Oscar entrant I've seen all year.
Les Miz is a sprawling show, and Fantine's death leads to the real meat of the show, where Valjean adopts Fantine's daughter, Cosette, from a rapacious couple of innkeepers whose every thought is stealing (the Thernadiers, here played expertly by Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen). Still running from his jailer Javert, Valejean and Cosette wind up in Paris in 1832 as an eventualy botched student revolutionary protest sweeps up a group of young men, including Marius, Cosette's suitor, and the Thernadier's daughter, Eponine.
This is one of the great legendarily down shows, and virtually all of the show's most memorable numbers are death scene last gasps, interpsersed with dripping declarations of undying love and the occasional call to stand up and fight for freedom. The ideas are big, the music swells, but the lyrics are often surprisingly small, and often trite. Les Miz succeeds best, and affects most, when its not trying too hard, pushing too high, or smacking us with the obvious. But even its most shameless moments can pack a surprising punch.
After Hathaway, Jackman and Crowe, the biggest vocal surprises are Eddie Redmayne and Amanda Seyfried as the lovers Marius and Cosette. Redmayne is a foursquare romantic tenor in great voice, and Seyfried has a glorious light soprano that lifts her material way higher than I remember when I saw the show. The Eponine role is a natural stunner and she delivers. Carter and Cohen are aces as the Thernadiers. And the smaller roles - Gavroche, Enjolrais - work as reliably as one should expect.
Tom Hooper's direction is less assured than one might expect, as he seems to struggle with balancing the intimacy of the characters and their solos with the bombast and enormity of the action surrounding them. Les Miz, on stage, is memorably presented on a spinning disc, rotating characters on and off, and Hooper does his best to try and recreate the effect with pull backs and dolly shots to surround the sets, but he also frames his soloists in super tight, unforgiving closeups (Hathaway's lack of Hollywood vanity is remarkable), and the mix of shots doesn't make either choice necessarily effective. Hooper's focus on soloists robs "One Day More" of some its punch, Fantine's death is poorly staged, and Jackman's showiness would look less desperate if Hooper pulled back. None of this can diminish the power of the strongest numbers (Dream, On My Own, Empty Chairs at Empty Tables, Master of the House), but by the end, the show feels more like a slog than a journey.
Still, for its flaws, indeed perhaps because imperfection keeps this monster human scale rather than enormous and bloated, Les Miserables manages a surprising amount of subtlety, genuine emotion, and soaring power. Indeed, the film's attempts at intimacy solve a number of the second act book problems the show carries with it, which allows the show to feel more like an altogether more inclusive whole. All of which make it, for me, the Oscar contender to beat for Best Picture (I'll do Lincoln shortly), and a glorious adaptation of a misunderstood theatrical event. Someone may try again... but good luck with that. This one will stand pretty tall regardless, for a long time.