Monday, January 07, 2013

Movie Review - Les Miserables

I don't know the exact count but I know I've seen the musical stage version of Les Miserables at least half a dozen times and absolutely love the play and the music so I was super excited when I heard that they were making a movie version of this musical. At the same time, I was a little nervous because I know that adaptations like this can get screwed up. As they started announcing casting decisions my nervousness continued to teeter on the edge. I wasn't exactly sure what to expect.

I already knew something of the acting and singing talents of Amada Seyfried, Hugh Jackman and Anne Hathaway. I've also always been impressed with Helena Bonham Carter. However, I was a pretty nervous about Russell Crowe as Javert and I'm not a big fan of Sacha Baron Cohen and had no idea about his singing ability (though my brother pointed out he was in the recent movie adaptation of Sweeney Todd).

I didn't see any specific "billing" on previews and such so I did a search and was pleased to find that for Eponine they cast Samantha Barks who doesn't have much screen acting but has plenty of musical background including recently starring as Eponine in London. With this initial introduction I think perhaps I'm on the side of being slightly more "stage" snobby than perhaps I should have. To an extent, that did slant my opinion of the film.

With the opening scene it was quickly clear that this musical was being presented as more than a simple adaptation. First of all, they made the opening "Look Down" sequence dramatically over-the-top in terms of the scale of the set and the level of danger and frustration faced by the prisoners. In the stage version the prisoners appear to be working in some sort of a quarry pounding rocks or some such menial labor.

In the film, the prisoners are pulling on massive ropes/cables to literally pull a ship out of the sea and into harbor. They are being pounded by crashing waves from the ocean as well as rain pelting from above. High on the walls of the harbor, Javert is literally "looking down" on them as they work.

At the end of the scene, he stops Valjean and has him do a piece of work that showcases Valjean's amazing strength. I loved the grand spectacle of this scene in terms of just how large and intense everything was. I felt like some of the passion and grandeur of the orchestra and even the singing was lost amid the crashing of waves.

And thus begins my general critique of the film. The previous few sentences sort of sum up my feeling of this movie in almost every scene.

I absolutely loved that we were able to get so up close and intimate with the characters during each of these scenes. It's like having the ultimate front row seat at the theater. You're able to see the despair, the pain, the passion, the emotion. Everything is writ large and visible on the close up shots of each of the characters.

Additionally, because this was a film it was able to go all out in terms of spectacle and detail. I loved the wonderfully detailed and vivid settings. The costumes, hair and makeup and other small details were equally impressive and really served to make each scene feel remarkably close and real. All of this combined to increase the emotional attachment and intensity of each scene in the movie.

At the same time, I felt like the structure, content and way the scenes flowed actually detracted from the intensity and passion of the story. The film version did not remain 100% "sung through" like the stage version. The film was still almost exclusively sung but there were quite a few times where the actors would stop singing and speak a line or a few lines.

Sometimes these spoken lines were still spoken in rhyme and even with some tempo such that it was apparent that the spoken words were still part of a "song" while other times the moments of speech existed presumably to make the scene more "natural" or to clarify or expound on something.

Along with this, there were times when the actors (especially Russell Crowe) sang the lines much softer almost without emotion or at the very least seemingly lacking in the passion due a particular song. As a result, I felt like a lot of the songs lost a lot of their "punch" and intensity, instead relying on the spectacle of the filmmaking to create the emotional draw for the scene.

Both of Javert's key songs (Stars and Javert's Suicide) felt this way to me. I felt like he was just idly singing his songs while expecting the camera angles and great scenery to do the work of engaging you in the scene. Strangely I felt like Marius went to the other side and tried to force emotion through his vibratto. He had a nice voice, but his execution left me a little flat.

Overall, I still absolutely loved this movie. The story is so absolutely amazing. I keep intending to read the original novel but even just based on what I know from musical and movie versions of the story I find myself inspired and engaged by the tale of Valjean.

I thought the artistic depiction of Paris and the amazing spectacle of scenery, costumes and makeup really created a vivid sensory experience of the life and times of our characters.  I loved the passion and intensity that came out through the great close up shots possible in a film.

I was a little disappointed by the musical aspect of the film. Not only did I feel like some of the sound effects dampened the power of the orchestra but I really felt like the pacing and direction of the scenes tended to pull down the emotional passion and draw available in many of the songs to the point where it almost felt like the intent was to make it seem like this wasn't a musical so much as a movie that happened to have singing in it. There were a few wonderful renditions of the songs but for the most part I still prefer the stage soundtracks to this one.

I still definitely recommend this movie. Sadly the pros and cons tend to balance each other out to create a moderately decent film adaptation of this absolutely amazing and stirring stage musical.

Even though I was a little disappointed, I do acknowledge that I went in with fairly high expectations. In the end the movie still is very good and well worth watching. Even my brother said he enjoyed it and was glad he went (and he is not a fan of musicals….and that's an understatement).

If you have the opportunity (and the money) to see the stage version, I would recommend you do so (know that it is necessarily going to be pared down in terms of set and effects). Given the choice, I might instead pull out my Cast Recordings and close my eyes and listen. Still I certainly do recommend this movie as a good, less expensive option if you can't make it to the stage show.

4 out of 5 stars


Brian Miller said...

les mis was the first show i ever saw on broadway...i was 16 and fell in love with the stage...not that i have been much, but...i cant wait to see this...

Kevin said...

Wow, you really evoked some emotion in me with your review. The words 'seriously?' and 'really?' kept escaping from my lips as I read.
Complaining that the entire film wasn't 'sung through' made me laugh out loud. REALLY? OMG, it was insignificant, I can't even believe you brought it up. I will bring up a technical analogy if that's ok. Any complaining about this movie is like an Android fan boy complaining about missing features of the iPhone like being able to side load or mess with every little feature. This film wasn't meant for the quarter of one percent of the people out there that are musical/stage snobs like you. They would never make any money and no one would go see it. They made something that the average man could go see and love. Just like the iPhone sells hundreds of millions of units to people that don't give a crap about side loading and messing with every little setting and feature. They just want it to work. People just want to be entertained.
I think this film fit the bill of being wildly entertaining. I know of several people that new nothing of Les Mis before seeing the film and now are loving it. It has enriched their lives. Rock pile, shipyard who cares?
That being said I do have to agree on at least one point. Javert, Russell Crowe, SERIOUSLY? Yikes, couldn't they have found someone, anyone else? This was almost as bad as Pierce Brosnans debacle of a performance in Mamma Mia. I love Russell Crowe as an actor, but this was a musical! Hello?
I am not a musical lover. Far from it. I do enjoy some of the music but people singing about EVERY SINGLE THING THEY ARE DOING is just not natural and makes my brain twitch every time I see it. Let's see, I'm being raped, I'll think I'll sing about that. Nice.
Now, that I have that off my chest, you know I am not an expert on this stuff. Far far from it, so I have to bow to your experience and expertise. I would have expected a 4.5 or 5 from you on this. Especially this. I am disappointed in your review. You have let me down. I may never go see a movie musical again ;)

Okie said...

@Brian - Les Mis is certainly one of the quintessential Broadway shows to see

@Kevin - lol...yeah, I re-read my review before posting and did feel like I was being a little harsh in points. I certainly agree with your analogy. This movie was made to appeal to the general movie-going public. At the same time though I disagree a little bit because they did stay very true to the musical roots and kept the score and lyrics 90% in tact, thus trying to not only pull the average front-row-joe into the musical world but also trying to appeal to the broadway fanatics.

I did debate on giving it a 4.5 instead of a 4. I held back because of my theatre snobbery (which I acknowledged early on). As a wonderful entertaining spectacle, this film is great. However, it is still a musical and an adaptation of the stage show. The changes to the scenery wasn't a huge deal (I agree...rock pile vs. shipyard, not a big deal, in fact, I liked the over-the-top element of the shipyard which is something that couldn't be adequately presented on stage). The non "sung through" elements weren't a big deal either and I was fine with them using standard speech for some of the segments, though it made me wonder how they made the choice of what to sing and what to speak...especially when they spoke lyrics and continued to breathily rhyme a couple of spoken lines. It made me laugh.

Because the film is an adaptation of the stage show that I love so much, I felt that I had to compare it to the stage show. Even in the stage show, there are times I found it strange that they sang everything. There are times where I'd like more than just the sparse scenery. But overall the stage show is wonderfully and absolutely emotionally stirring. The clash of drums and horns from a live orchestra coupled with powerful, heartfelt songs is amazing. My only complaint with the first scene being in a shipyard was that the staging and sound effects of the waves seemed to muffle some of the power of the orchestra. Even when the orchestra still remained as powerful an element, the way the actors sang some of the songs just lacked some of the power and depth of passion that they normally have. I attribute this partially to the actors themselves (wow did Russell Crowe seem constrained and constipated in some of his songs) but also because of the up close and personal staging of some of the scenes, there were songs that were song much more softly and subdued than I personally felt they should have.

Is this a fabulous movie?


Is it as good as the stage version?

No, it's not.

So if I give the stage version a 5 (or a 4.5 if it's poorly cast), then I felt like I'd need to give the movie a lower score...a 4.5 at best, but downgraded to a 4 because of the poor casting and execution of some of the songs.

Thanks for your comment....and I do hope you do continue to give movie musicals a chance. It is laughable when you stop and think about the fact that they're breaking into song, but there's something so evocative about music that if you can get beyond that, I find it can be as emotionally stirring as any movie, or even more so.