I had the pleasure of watching Les Miserables with my wife, Missy, and we didn’t quite come together on director Tom Hooper’s take on Broadway’s take on Victor Hugo’s classic novel. I liked it, and she loved it.
The thing is, I don’t think Missy is wrong about this one. I just think that I’m Dan and she’s Missy, and the uniqueness of this movie necessitates both sides be heard.
So, here is a his-and-hers review of Les Mis presented like it happened on the car ride home: in dialogue format.
Dan: I wanted to love this movie as much as you ultimately did. But since I didn’t, I think you should go first.
Missy: Well, right off the bat, this is a huge and emotional experience. We both cried.
Dan: It’s true. You cried more than I did, but there it is.
Dan: You’re right. The actors are really sensational. I can imagine die-hard lovers of the musical faulting a few of the movies stars for not achieving the technical singing excellence that stage actors strive for—but I think that’s missing the point of what Hooper is trying to achieve here, which is to bring the whole thing down to earth a little. It was smart to pick film actors who can carry a tune rather than virtuoso singers accustomed to emoting for the back row. Whatever theater cred Russell Crowe loses from ignoring a few of Javert’s more difficult notes, he more than makes up for it with that Gladiator blend of gravitas and vulnerability.
Missy: Exactly. If you’re a classically trained singer and not a careful film actor, you could never get as gritty and honest as Hugh Jackman does in Jean Valjean’s conversion scene. A movie audience needs to feel the sandpaper on Valjean’s soul as he confesses, and the torment in Jackman’s performance is as much in his broken voice as it is on his face.
Dan: It’s something that audiences would never go for on the stage, but it works perfectly here.
Missy: This is one of the major things I loved about the movie: It did everything that a stage couldn’t. Hooper gets us both closer and farther away than we ever could be before, creating for our eyes what our imagination was supposed see in the stage version. And he doesn’t take the easy way out with cut-and-paste replacements from the musical. He takes opportunities to make everything both bigger and more detailed whenever he can. That giant ship at the beginning isn’t on stage in the play, but it is magnificent to behold on screen.
Missy: I disagree. Too much hustle and bustle would have made this movie too modern, and Les Mis is not Moulin Rouge. Les Miserables’ story has an old-fashioned character-based richness that requires we stop and listen every now and then. Sometimes the movie goes wide; sometimes it goes deep. There was nothing else I would rather have seen in the deep moments than the actors’ faces.
Dan: But I don’t think Hooper finds the balance. The barricade is probably the best example of this. I remember it somehow feeling grand in the theater version, but Hooper’s avoidance of wide shots and his insistence on shooting the actors individually makes everything seem small. Can you hear the people singing? Sure you can! One at a time and from 18 inches away!
Missy: Hooper is shooting the barricade from the young zealot’s point of view! How could you miss this? It’s shot as if the outside world doesn’t exist because that's how it feels to the revolutionaries. When Hooper finally does give us that bird’s-eye view of Paris, where our heroes are dwarfed by the huge and indifferent city, it’s all the more startling because he’s done such a thorough job of keeping us in that small but complete barricade universe for so long.
Dan: But you lose a feeling of ensemble that is so important to the idea of everyone banding together. All I’m saying is that you could have kept us in that universe and still have managed to include more than two people in a shot every now and then.
Missy: It’s an ensemble of struggling individuals! That’s the whole point!
Missy: I was too engrossed in the story to even think about that. Which reminds of something I think we both agree the movie got very right: I loved Les Mis because it reminds me why I became a Christian. It is one of the most moving and comprehensive salvation stories ever written. Scene after scene is permeated with injustice and covered in grace. We’re shown that the world can be and often is a dark, dreary and painful place and the only thing for it is the kind of supernatural mercy shown to and through Jean Valjean. The movie really brings this redemptive part of the story to life.
Dan: Which is why we both cried. But I cried a little less.
Missy: Well, you can’t get every movie right; can you, Mr. Film Critic? [singing] “On your own ... ”
Dan: [singing] “Lovely lady, this movie’s not that great!”
Missy: Vive la Les Miserables!
Dan: Vive la I’m hungry. Let's go get some French food somewhere.
Missy: Sounds good.