I finally saw Les Mis: the movie . I have seen Les Mis the stage musical, including once in German in Berlin. I have not (yet) read the book that inspired the musical, so my review will not involve discussions of Victor Hugo’s original intents. I thought the movie was fine but not fantastic. Because I like to complain, the rest of this post will focus on my problems with the film.
I have two primary issues with the movie. One was that several characters felt either uninteresting or simply wrong. In combination, these problematic characters flattened a show that demands large, distinct personalities to drag the viewer in and make us care about them as distinct entities. The other complaint concerns the film’s treatment of the revolution.
Some characters were anywhere from good to excellent. Particularly, I am thinking of Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman), Fontine (Anne Hathaway), Cosette (both Amanda Seyfried and Isabelle Allen), Gavroche (Daniel Huttlestone), and Marius (Eddie Redmayne).
The other characters seemed too soft, pensive, or simply, well, off where they were supposed to be emotionally. I will discuss Sacha Baron Cohen’s Thenardier first in order to emphasize that I do not think the problem was the acting (well, except for Russell Crowe’s Javer, maybe), but the directing. The innkeeper’s opening song, Master of the House, is supposed to be off the walls loud, fun, and comedic. I have always envisioned the innkeeper’s fellow drinkers (as opposed to bourgeois visitors) to know what is in store for them. They join in the ribald, spouse-insulting song to break the dark and serious mood that oppresses the rest of the show. It is a break to have some fun. Instead, the song is treated almost as a mere conversation, with Madame Thénardier’s part almost lost in the need to demonstrate that the Thenardiers are scheming, untrustworthy parasites. They are, but the scenes before and after do plenty to teach us that. We needed a real comedy relief scene, and the director blew it. I say the director because Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter both have the chops to pull off the drinking-song showstopper that the musical demands, with the married couple reveling in their machinating. Even singing with a more sinister voice, something Cohen is clearly capable of, would have made a huge difference.
Samantha Barks as Eponine sang all of her songs beautifully. My main problem with her was, again, characterization. Sure, we are reminded several times that she is Thenardier’s daughter, but never once does she act like she comes from a family of criminals. She appeared to be little different from Cosette. Cosette is supposed to a vapid, love struck, romantic little girl for the tweens to fall in love with so they can annoy their middle school teachers with too many renditions of her songs. Eponine is supposed to be something different. More complicated, darker, so that we understand that her sacrifice for Marius is both dramatic and out of character for her, a street urchin who can never experience Marius’s love or life and so saves him. Part of the problem was the abrupt cuts between scenes. A short walk from Marius, perhaps looking extra-Bourgeois, to her little hovel before her lament would not have been a difficult thirty seconds to fit in. I got character-whiplash watching her smiling giddily with Marius and then suddenly looking upset to sing a line.
One of the problems I had with Les Mis was that the voices sound too similar. You can play a CD of the stage version and comprehend that Thenardier is mischievous, Eponine is suffering from unrequited love, and Enjolras wants to kick some ass. Barks’s voice is lovely but I feel it is too standard or indistinct (or a different adjective that fails me). She sounds like any other beautiful singer. That is not to say her voice is not wonderful, but she was too similar to Cosette. Eponine can be so much more than “the other girl who wants Marius.” I am at a loss to explain how she could have done a better job, such is the enigma of Eponine to me, but there it is.
I wonder if part of the reason everyone rather sounds the same (see also: Enjolras) is part of the modern trend in singing in which all personality leaves the voice and music. Autotune is a horrible, horrible symptom of this process. I wholeheartedly supported the director Tom Hooper’s decision to have the actors all sing while filming. A great decision, even if Hugh Jackman has a couple of very flat or bad-falsetto lines. I loved that aspect of the film. That decision could have opened the way to a real Thenardier, a deeper Eponine. They do not have to sound like beautifully clear singers, especially if that takes away from the characters and the story. In a movie where every line is sung, how it is sung matters just as much as how well it was sung.
Moving on. Russell Crowe’s Javer… well, let’s just say that Javer is my favorite part in Les Mis, and Russell Crowe successfully… looked the part? Unlike Eponine, who was great if too one-dimensional, Russell Crowe-as-Javer sounded like he too focused on getting the right pitch. Beyond that, and more importantly, where was JAVER? The stolid, dedicated officer who brooked no insult to the law and believed wholeheartedly in his duty? Russell Crowe’s Javer seemed positively pensive throughout the entire movie. Sure, he said (well, sang) lyrics about his utter devotion to the law, but did he have one moment in the entire film when he seemed to believe himself? Stars, maybe my favorite song and a solemn, personal declaration of intent, devolved into a conversation with himself. I want the conviction! I want Javer to be absolutely sure of everything! Otherwise, his suicide makes absolutely no sense.
Now, Enjolras (Aaron Tveit). Like Eponine, a good voice. Like Eponine, he did not sound like an Enjolras, and he had even less personality. Listening to the stage CD on the way home from the movie, I immediately remembered what Enjolras should sound like: a young man who is willing, perhaps desiring, to die for his cause. He did not sound any different from anybody around him. Where was Enjolras’ violent suicidal mania, convinced of the righteousness of his cause and the duty to die for it to inspire the masses? Javer and Enjolras can be seen as two sides of the same coin, absolutely devoted to conservative order and revolutionary fervor respectively. Having one of them act like it would have been nice.
Now, to the revolution.
I understand that, supposedly, viewers today are suspicious of great movements and of revolution. One of the lessons of Les Mis is, of course, evolution’s abject failure. The movie almost tries to skip through it. Carrying the Banner from Newsies had more revolutionary fervor and dramatic inspiration than this movie’s Do You Hear the People Sing. It was not nearly loud enough (perhaps they forgot that lots of voices sound louder than one voice?), and only looked like a few people getting together. Maybe the director wanted to throw some reality into the mix.
That is not the point. Whatever people today want to think about those revolutionary students is immaterial. We are supposed to see them how Enjolras saw them (this goes for Javer too: when he is singing stars, we should see him how he sees himself. Strong and sure!), as group of students who would awaken and save the world. Like Wesleyan students off to protest about a cause they just learned about, these students believed they would shake sense into the people around them. Why could I barely hear it? Where was the epic scale? A movie should easily top whatever sense of majesty a stage play creates. In fact, it does… at the very end. That ghost barricade at the end was exactly the thing needed during Do You Hear the People Sing and One Day More. Just give them halos at the end or something.
I never quite learned that they were students, fighting for the masses who they did not really know, thinking everyone would fall in line if they just got the word out. After the battle, I saw how pathetic they really were. I should have first seen the grandeur they believed to hold in themselves.
As for One Day More…. If South Park’s parody of the song was bigger, louder, and felt more like a climax moment, then Tom Hooper really needed to think about what Les Mis is all about.