As a musical theatre lover of the first order, I have to tell you, though I’m always in eager anticipation of the next show-to-movie musical adaptation, I’ve never come out of one and not been a little disappointed. Basically, when you’ve been that close up to musicals, it makes it hard to enjoy-- seeing the places where their seams show. (And they all have seams. Even the classics. Sometimes especially.)
The close up of film normally removes the immediacy of singing. And something is lost. Tom Hooper was essentially always asking for a world of dilemma by taking on one of the world’s most beloved musicals—a show that has always walked a fine line between gut-wrenching and melodrama. (Or as Steven might say, “High, high retro drama. Get ready for it.”) When I saw the revival on Broadway, though I much loved it, and met some of my best friends from that show, I felt it lost something in a smaller house. The barricade didn't intimidate me. It was just a set piece. I was simply too close to believe.
My personal attachment to the show, coupled with my long standing reservations about it, made my viewing of Les Miserables full of anxiety. (“Almost NO Broadway people. Only Aaron. All London people. On principle, this felt like another snobby British moment. And would it prove to be too stunt cast-y? Remember that minute when Taylor Swift was almost going to be Eponine? Yeah.)
But Tom Hooper—who pointed out in conversation after the film that this was technically ‘low budget’-- made several huge, game-changing, instinct-driven decisions. First is the much-discussed live singing. I won’t go into that in much detail, because everyone else has, but I will say this. We should never make movie musicals any other way ever again. Ever.
Second-- and in some ways, I think this one might be more important-- is a decision about perspective. The camera is always somewhere I didn’t expect it to be. It holds longer than you’d think. It never cuts when you think it will. It zooms in and stays there. This movie is unflinching.
Tom Hooper chose to shoot all the solos in extreme close up. Anne Hathaway’s rendition of “I Dreamed a Dream,” plays without cuts, and in a single take. You’ve probably heard whispers or grumblings of this, but it’s true: throw everything you’ve ever thought about Anne Hathaway out the window. She’s fine-to-good in everything leading up that song—one of the best in musical theatre history. But, while no vocal power house, I assure you, you will not care. It’s the rawest thing I’ve ever seen filmed.
A close second is “Look Down.” The images of that opener are still with me. And it’s where Hugh Jackman won me over completely which helped as the movie went on. Because, for me, Jackman gets less compelling as the film goes on, until his death scene. (Spoiler. Jean Valjean dies.) The biggest let down of the film for me was his "Bring Him Home."
But the Hugh Jackman of “Look Down” is arresting. All bloodshot eyes and soaking wet and patchy hair with visible scalp scars. From that song into the convent section where he experiences a redemption at the mercy of the priest and prays at the alter to his own transformation, it's a juggernaut. And then, the scene is immediately transformed in the way that shows Jean Valjean’s vision of the world and his place in it. When he leaves the convent--a place we had previously a bleak, tight scope on-- to reveal the full world, and Valjean casts his ripped up convict papers and scatters them to the wind... that shot is…. Magnificent.
And here's the real and deeply satisfying revelation of choosing to shoot the film this way. Not only does it trust the actor to tell the story plainly, it trusts the song. Just typing those words, I well up a little, because isn't that the point? Isn't that what every musical theatre writer hopes for? A trust that the song is enough. That the song is the ultimate expression. And I smile, thanking Tom Hooper for knowing that it is.
My only concerns with the film are the concerns I have about Les Mis as a stage show as well. Namely, its pacing in the second act and the very nature of a sung through show. For the record, I think that device works better in a film adaptation than a stage show. In the medium of the close up, it’s harder to justify the intense emotion that necessitates only one method of release: song. That’s why they sing on the stage. But in film, you have the close up. That much emotion close up…. it can be overwhelming. It can backfire and make you uncomfortable.
My issue with an entirely sung through show—particularly this show—is that it becomes too sing-song, that it feels naked and not in a good way, was largely washed away when I heard director Tom Hooper explain it.
Rather than make a deal with the audience that asks us to forgive or understand why sometimes the characters sing and sometimes they speak, (sometimes a contradiction that’s easy to forgive and sometimes not) or a trope like fantasy (Chicago) or the confines of a performative group of people (Dream Girls) instead you create an alternate reality where singing is essentially the only way that people communicate.
Other takeaways for me: Eddie Redmayne was exactly what Marius should be (though watch out, they’ve cut the instrum intro to ‘Empty Chairs.’) but nevertheless, Enjolras is the more compelling character, and I think Aaron steals the scenes away from Eddie a lot. Maybe I’m bias. Samantha Barks was just okay. BLESS Anne Dudley and Stephen Metcalfe for giving us a Les Mis with red-blooded orchestrations. I need never hear those synths again. Gavroche has always been the coolest kid to ever run Paris, but this Gavroche is so blued-eyed and vivid and alive that he's almost too real. Sacha Baron Cohen & Helena Bonham Carter as the Thenardiers seemed like they were from another movie, but I nevvvvver cared. Bonus points for Colm Wilkinson's cameo.
The packed theatre was audibly sobbing at multiple moments. Even the men. Normally, when I recommend a movie musical, I do so for the people who don’t love musicals, thinking: oh, this is removed enough. Maybe it will give them a way in. But it is with pleasure that today I say, I’m not sure what non musical theatre people will think of this movie and I don’t care. But we geeky musis of the world, this is a film for us. And a film we can be proud of. Go see it. Though I know I don’t have to tell you that.