So I saw Tom Hooper's film version of Les Misérables a few nights ago, and...it's very up and down. It has too many phenomal moments to be bad, and too many bad moments to be good. A lot of reviews have touched on the main points: Anne Hathaway as Fantine is absolutely fantastic and whoever cast Russell Crowe as Javert must have been really high, drunk, or both. I feel especially conflicted since I grew up loving the stage version: it is and more or less always has been my favorite musical. I know the music inside and out, so it was with both excitement and trepidation that I went to see the film version.
Warning, spoilers below!
Les Misérables, often abbreviated Les Miz or Les Mis (I use the former spelling), is an interesting musical for a variety of reasons. It was written in 1980 when sung-through musicals were all the rage, as epitomized by Andrew Lloyd Weber, and tends to stretch its performer's vocal ranges. It is also, of course, based on the novel by Victor Hugo (so this film is an adaptation of an adaptation which is itself, arguably, a fictionalization of historical events), which features scenes of war and takes place across France. Basically it's meant for the stage but at the same time not perfectly suited for the stage either. By creating a film version of the musical, the difficulties with the stage version are exchanged for an entirely different set of difficulties.
There is much potential for this to be an excellent film, yet it just doesn't get there. On occasion the film really breaks loose and uses the full freedom and flexibility a camera offers, but more often than not it's as if the cinematographer (and director?) are trying to create a film version of the stage production, instead of just creating a film. Several, if not most, of the solos are done as a single take that often leave them feeling flat and uninteresting. When the camera is allowed to really break free from the shackles of theatrical staging the results are astounding, such as the case in "Look Down" where the camera follows Gavroche through the streets of Paris (it's a truly incredible scene). Unfortunately, for every "Look Down" there are several "Bring Him Home" single take songs that are just boring.
Another issue is Tom Hooper's decision to have all of the actor's sing their songs live while filming, as opposed to re-dubbing them in a studio after the fact as is usually done. I get what he was trying to do: make the performances seem more spontaneous and to allow the physicality of the actors and their musical performance blend together seamlessly. It's a good idea in theory, but this approach requires even more musical talent from the actors. To put it bluntly, the majority cast simply wasn't talented enough to make this approach work.
The worst performer, by far, was Russell Crowe as Javert. He wasn't just bland or boring, he was downright horrible, and I don't say this out of any hatred for the actor as I think he is very talented in general. But this specific performance...atrocious. Listening to him sing it's obvious he comes from the pop world, which is to say he hasn't been formally trained in classical vocal styles. This would be fine for most film musicals, but Les Miz isn't most musicals and Javert isn't most roles. To add insult to injury, even if Crowe had had formal training, his voice is simply wrong for the role. Javert needs a sharp, almost harsh, tone, but Crowe has a very soft and warm sound. Suffice to say, Crowe's performance was so bad it was painful to watch at times.
Turning to Hugh Jackman as Valjean, things look better. Hugh Jackman has a pretty good voice, and obviously has the acting chops as well, yet he doesn't quite pull off the role of Valjean. In this case I credit it to the role just being out of Hugh Jackman's reach. This is most obvious in "Bring Him Home," which, to be fair, is an incredibly difficult piece. It's a song that has to be very delicate and soft, yet the song extends pretty high in pitch. Hugh Jackman starts out way to powerfully for what the song requires, and it seems to me that it's because he's struggling (the louder you sing, the easier it is to hit notes at the upper end of your range).
It's not all doom and gloom though, there were three performances that I thought were excellent, and one pretty good one: Fantine, Marius, Gavroche, and the Thénardiers. Gavroche, as played by a 12 year old Daniel Huttlestone, was uniformly excellent and almost single-handedly elevated "Look Down" into one of the best numbers in the entire film. Eddie Redmayne as Marius was also very good. His rendition of "Empty Chairs at Empty Tables" was just heartrending and gave me a new appreciation for the character. Although not quite to the level of the others, Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter as the Thénardiers were still thoroughly entertaining.
Finally we come to Anne Hathaway as Fantine. What a revelation! She is by far the best reason to go see this film, and I sincerely believe she deserves an Oscar for her performance. The rawness and emotional frailty that Hathaway brought to the character is just astounding; this is my absolute favorite performance and interpretation of the character I've seen in any format. I wish I could embed her entire performance in "I Dreamed a Dream", but this TV spot is the best I could find. It doesn't do the scene justice either because this scene as a whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
I would say that Anne Hathaway is why it's worthwhile to see this film, even though she's only on screen briefly. The best scenes in the film are mostly the scenes that she is in. She is the reason to see this film, flat-out, and it is because of her performance that I still believe that Les Miz could make for an amazing film adaptation, even if this film isn't it.