'Les Miserables'

The movie version of the stage play of the classic novel has its high points and low points, says one couple that didn't see eye to eye on it.

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.

"I was struck by how difficult it must have been to act and sing something as melodramatic as a Broadway musical with a camera right next your face." —Missy
Missy: And it was good, soulful crying, not The Notebook crying. The story had a lot to do with that, but the way the movie was made really helped. The director didn’t do the usual thing of recording voices in advance and having the actors lip-sync during filming; instead, he made them sing on set and used those recordings for the movie. I was struck by how difficult it must have been to act and sing something as melodramatic as a Broadway musical with a camera right next your face. The story alone is melodramatic enough, but combined with the musical’s innate theatricality, it takes exceptional performances by the actors to bring each moment to life without making them bigger than life.

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.

"Hooper’s avoidance of wide shots and his insistence on shooting the actors individually makes everything seem small." —Dan
Dan: The ship is a wonderful cinematic moment. I just wish he'd done that sort of thing throughout the entire movie. The good parts were so good that I was distracted by the parts that were just okay. A number of scenes seemed under-adapted to me. At its best, like the ship in the beginning and the gargoyle motif in Javert’s scenes, the movie uses its visual license to find exciting new complements to the music. At its worst, however, the movie stops and waits for the music. It’s like whenever Hooper ran out of ideas, he planted the camera in front of the actors and hoped against hope that watching them sing would be enough.

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!

"Even at almost three hours, I felt like it needed some breathing room." —Dan
Dan: It’s one place where, for me, the movie’s origins in the musical pushes too hard against Hooper’s choices. One is the whole ensemble thing. Another is in the sheer constancy of the singing. On a stage, you have applause and an intermission to break things up, but the movie just barrels through. Even at almost three hours, I felt like it needed some breathing room.

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.

4 Comments

Ethics of Elfland

1

Ethics of Elfland reviewed…

Ooo....I have to side with Missy on this one. Something I noticed: the "banding" together mostly takes place sonically instead of visually. I can think of many scenes where complimentary and contradictory 'verses' come together to form a singular harmony (Red and Black is a great example). The voices join to form something, instead force something. This, in my opinion, is much more affective than a grand spectacle with only momentary appeal. The "smallness" of the scenes points to an overall theme, which is as Missy says, "an ensemble of struggling individuals." The redemption takes place in facing one another. So it only makes sense that Hooper focus on faces.

Fun review guys!!!

Travis harger

11

Travis harger reviewed…

Gonna agree with Missy too. I absolutely loved every moment. Would change very very little. I enjoy that they focus on the faces - Fontaine, Valjean, and the Brunette chick's faces were filled with emotion that no cutaway would of done better - i thought focusing on the faces was the smartest and most honest part of the film.

I'll have an internal battle going all week over whether Tree of Life or Les Mis is the most beautiful, spiritual, and humane movie ever made.

Adam

3

Adam reviewed…

What Anne Hathaway did with her role went beyond acting and singing and had felt like nothing I'd ever seen before. She was so good, I felt a little uncomfortable watching her because I'd never seen someone so vulnerable on screen before.

Huguet Gabriel

1

Huguet Gabriel reviewed…

As I'm french, I may be a little less enthusiastic as you are guys.
Although the interpretation might be good (it's always impressive to see actors perform beyond what we know about their abilities ), it's always hard when you know the book to see that kind of version of the story which is less reality-anchored. Yes the costumes are right, the intentions too...But, in my opinion, from the start when Les Misérables went to the stage on Broadway I felt like it was wrong, or at least, not as powerful as the book in its sadness, blackness, desperation Hugo described in it.

Anyway, no such power as Imagination...I guess I prefer to read than watch that kind of story...

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