My wife and I took in the screen adaptation of the hit Broadway musical “Les Miserables” this afternoon. My recommendation: see the stage version, and skip the movie.
It’s not that this musical couldn’t have made a successful transition from stage to screen. There were two major problems with this particular movie: casting and directing.
There were two major characters that were poorly cast: Fantine (played by Anne Hathaway) and Javert (played by Russell Crowe). Hathaway’s melodramatic performance was way, way over the top. Broadway performers know how to act and sing at the same time. Hathaway appears able to do only one or the other at any given moment. Crowe is less objectionable. His characterization of Javert was quite good; however, his voice is simply not strong enough to carry Javert’s singing part. Crowe can carry a tune, but he can’t sell the song. And, seeing as how this is more or less an opera, that’s no small deficiency when you’re the antagonist for close to three hours.
But the biggest problem with the screen adaptation was the directing, which consisted of primarily two shots: closeups and extreme closeups. (I’m exaggerating, of course, but only a little.) Watching Marius sing “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables,” or Fantine sing “I Dreamed a Dream,” while on a static closeup for nearly the entire song did not display a great deal of either acting or directing skills. If this directing choice was meant to provoke pity and sadness, it only succeeded for the first forty-five seconds or so. After that, the viewers become anxious and jittery as their eyes begin searching for something — anything &mdash else to look at: the out-of-focus background, the borders of the screen, the exit sign, whatever can be found. The poignancy of “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables” would be captured better by seeing Marius alone in the room with the abandoned furniture for at least part of the time he sings about it. But alas, the set designer’s work is barely seen, and the actor is called upon to convey the full emotion of the moment solely through his face and voice.
Not that the film was all bad. Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman), Enjorlas (Aaron Tviet), Gavroche (Daniel Huttlestone), and of course the Bishop (Colm Wilkinson, who played the original Jean Valjean on stage) were high points as they all turned in exceptional performances, both in acting and singing. The Thenardiers (Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter) were entertaining, and Marius and Eponine (Eddie Redmayne and Samantha Barks) performed well. The set design was excellent.
If you’re a die-hard “Les Miserables” fan, you’ll want to see this movie regardless of the reviews. But if you’ve never seen the musical, don’t judge it based on the movie. The stage version is far superior.