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I wonder what Victor Hugo would think of the musical based on his book, “Les Misérables.” The Broadway show has certainly surpassed the book in terms of popularity, to the point that there may be a significant number of fans who have no idea it was ever anything else.
The novel is more ponderous, more focused on the plight of the poor and destitute in France at the time, whereas the musical is bombastic and full of elaborate set pieces. This is just as true in the new Academy Award-nominated film. There isn’t much about the film that hasn’t already been covered. It’s certainly good—one of the film best musicals I’ve seen in recent years. But there hasn’t been a lot of recent competition. And while there are several incredible performances in the movie, it is by no means equal to the stage show.
What the film has is a wider canvass on which to paint the setting—it has visual effects that are stunning and vast. It feels like France, despite all the English. I might have enjoyed it more in French, but this is America after all. My only complaint is that the film is a musical and music should take precedence. The settings and costumes should all take a backseat to the songs. There isn’t room for movie stars with mediocre voices.
For the uninitiated, the story follows convict Jean Val Jean, who was imprisoned for 20 years after stealing a loaf of bread. He finds that 19th century France is unforgiving of men with a past and flees his parole to start a new life. He is pursued by the unrelenting Javert, an officer who believes that all criminals are doomed to repeat their crimes. Over the course of the film, Valjean takes in the daughter of a dying prostitute and moves from city to city, hoping for peace. However, peace in France is hard to achieve when the masses are starving.
The narrative structure of the film is told entirely through song—there is no dialogue. This is an especially difficult form of musical, one that requires absolute professionals. When the film succeeds, it soars. Anne Hathaway is absolutely stunning as Fantine. Her accolades are well deserved. Hugh Jackman, despite his resume as a Broadway performer, is not quite up to the task of Jean Valjean. Valjean is a very difficult part and Jackman is singing at the top of his range, which at times can be grating. Russell Crowe is miscast as Javert—he is a fine actor and a competent singer, but his voice just isn’t right for the part. Luckily, there are other Broadway actors who fill out the company well. Samantha Barks has some especially powerful scenes. However, for a film like this to work, everyone needs to be at the same level and the weak parts of the cast are noticeable.
I’ll admit that “Les Miz” isn’t my favorite musical. There are only three or four good songs in the entire show, strung together with recitative that doesn’t move or inspire. This is mostly personal preference, however, and doesn’t make the film any less impressive. The staging and scope of the visuals are likely to please fans to no end. The opening scene alone is worth the price of admission. I simply prefer a different style of musical —“Guys and Dolls” for instance, or “Singing in the Rain.” Both of those musicals have wonderful film interpretations and I hope that Hollywood knows to leave well enough alone.
If the success of “Les Misérables” is any indication, there may soon be an influx of big-budget Hollywood musicals. The film has exploded in terms of both box office draw and critical acclaim. It isn’t that there is a larger for fan base for the musical —“Rent” likely has more fans—but “Les Misérables” has struck a chord with audiences, as well as the Academy. If this is the beginning of a trend, I hope Hollywood understands that most actors aren’t Broadway quality singers and Anne Hathaway isn’t always available. A bit of caution goes a long way. Unfortunately, Hollywood isn’t known for proportionate responses.