Whether you’ve seen the Les Misérables movie or not, this post is for you. There really aren’t any spoilers (OK, Anne Hathaway says one – if you don’t want to know it, don’t read her quote in number nine below), although I suspect most people know the plot already. (If you want a general outline, here’s the entire Les Misérables plot in emoji. Want more Les Mis memes? Check out Les Fiscal Misérables, & this collection, and do a google images search for “Les Misérables meme” to catch some other good ones.)
It’s also probably no surprise to anyone reading this that one cast member is getting serious Oscar Buzz, and another one is being almost universally panned. Which leads us to number ten…
10. Russell Crowe stinks. Let’s just get it out of the way right now, because it is simply true. He plays Javert, and it was a big casting mistake. I happen to like Russell Crowe a lot. I think he’s a great actor, and since he was in a band for a long time I assumed he could sing. I guess that’s a lot like assuming that since I’ve had a membership to an online dieting community for a decade I’m now a size 2 (I’m not).
If it were just that his singing was bad, I could forgive him – if he was acting the hell out of a song while singing it off-key, it wouldn’t have been as terrible as it was. He was on key throughout (although his higher notes took on a Muppet-like quality), but was so wooden it seemed like either he was concentrating so hard on the singing part that he forgot to act, or he made a very bad acting choice. Is it possible that he chose to play a very dedicated and single-minded detective as boring? Could he really have interpreted steadfast as soporific? I really hope it wasn’t on purpose.
Look at him, even in the publicity photo he looks confused. Not a good sign.
9. If Anne Hathaway doesn’t win an Oscar for playing Fantine, then the system is broken. She’s that good. When I saw the movie, the theater was completely silent for her big song, except for sobs. Not sniffles, sobs! When she finished, a murmur went through the crowd, as if it couldn’t believe what it had just seen and heard.
She isn’t in the movie much, but whenever she is, she owns is. She was simply incredible. And she did that lose-a-ton-of-weight-in-a-flash thing that somehow won’t mess up her metabolism because she’s a celebrity and not a normal person. Plus, she cut her beautiful hair, on camera. And to get inside Fantine’s head, she researched sex slaves.
There’s no way that I could relate to what my character was going through. I have a very successful, happy life and I don’t have any children that I’ve had to give up or keep.
And so, what I did was I tried to get inside the reality of her story as it exists in our world. And to do that, I read a lot of articles and watched a lot of documentaries and news clips about sexual slavery. And for me, and for this particular story, I came to the realization that I had been thinking about Fantine as someone who lived in the past, but she doesn’t.
She’s living in New York City right now. She’s probably less than a block away. This injustice exists in our world. And so, every day that I was her I just thought, “This isn’t an invention. This isn’t me acting. This is me honoring that this pain lives in this world.”
Here she is, acting – I mean “honoring” – her ass off.
Her big song is done in one long, close take. It’s brutal and unflinching and amazing. Director Tom Hooper explained how that shot came to be:
I felt like having the camera basically be a meditation on the human face was by far the best way to bring out the meaning and the emotion of the songs.
Ultimately, that way of shooting was a reaction to how good the actors were, because with Annie [Hathaway], I shot it with three cameras. I did have some options up my sleeve. But, she so brilliantly told that narrative in the language of the close up. She took you on a journey from beginning, middle, to end. It was so complete as a work that I began to feel like the best way to honor these performances was to have that stillness and simplicity in the moment of the songs.
She’s so amazing to watch and listen to, it could almost be passed off as a natural, easy thing. But she trained for months to be able to do what she did: belt out parts of the song while still keeping her face calm, and singing while crying. Explained Tom Hooper:
That was something she trained to do. She didn’t kind of go, “Oh, I’ll rock up and it’ll be fine.” She admitted the other day that she actually practiced crying and singing because she knew she was going to cry when she did Dreamed a Dream, but she also knew that she wouldn’t want to experience how to hold onto pitch for the very first time on a film set with three cameras running and discover that she couldn’t do it, or discover that her voice went.
It wasn’t easy, she just practiced and trained so that it would look easy.
8. Hugh Jackman is Jean Valjean.
Not sure I even have to say anything here. Let’s just watch him smolder.
7. Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter should be dropped into every movie as comic relief. As Monsieur and Madame Thénardier, they were sublime. Dirty, nasty, conniving, and always hilarious, they chewed the scenery and spat it out. I cannot imagine those two parts being more perfectly cast. Here they are with Cosette, trying (and failing) to look caring and sincere:
6. There are a lot of whores listed in the cast, but these two are my favorite. What an awesome listing to have on a resume: Head Whore. And when you get older? Mother Whore.
5. If you loved the stage version, chances are you’ll love the movie. I know some people who really don’t like the original Les Misérables, or (more amazingly) have never seen it on stage. It was no surprise that they didn’t like the movie. It is very faithful to the original. A bit too faithful in my opinion.
I’m not sure why I put up with things in the stage version that I could have done without in the movie. Maybe it’s the fact that theater tickets are ridiculously expensive, so I’m mentally prepared to settle in and get my money’s worth. Or perhaps it’s the intimacy of seeing giant faces on a giant screen: I don’t need things explained as much, I can see it in the actors’ faces. Consequently, songs that I enjoy on stage seemed unnecessary in the movie.
Songs like “Bring Him Home,” which I found just mesmerizing on stage, seemed very slow and clunky in the movie. It wasn’t Hugh Jackman’s fault, he sang it beautifully. It just wasn’t needed. It dragged. But if you were to cut it? Or any of the other songs? You’d enrage the Les Mis fanboys and girls, your core audience.
On the other hand, while I’ve been skipping “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables” for a decade when listening to the soundtrack, it was amazing as sung by Eddie Redmayne playing Marius. I only knew him from the non-musical My Week With Marilyn, and had no idea he could sing. But he can, and he knocks that number out of the park – it is gut-wrenching.
Here’s Eddie Redmayne with the also-excellent Samantha Barks (Eponine):
4. There is a completely superfluous Oscar-qualifying song. In order to be eligible for an Academy Award, a song has to be original and written specifically for a movie. So, when a stage musical is made into a movie, the creative team faces a dilemma: do they leave well enough alone and skip the Best Original Song category at the Oscars, or do they add a song where no song was needed before?
More often than not, they add a song. And it’s almost always a bad idea. “Suddenly,” sung by Hugh Jackman, is no exception.
Director Tom Hooper said that he went back to the novel, and discovered that Valjean has two epiphanies: one when he meets the Bishop (played in a good bit of sentimental casting by Colm Wilkinson, the original Jean Valjean), and the second when he meets Cosette.
And I felt, in the musical, the first epiphany is crystal clear, but the second transformation is kind of in the subtext. It’s not completely clear. So, I went to Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boublil, the original creators, and said, “Can you write me a song that captures what this feeling of love is like?” And they came up the song Suddenly, so that was probably the most important change.
I disagree, obviously. I think Hugh Jackman did a great job conveying the subtext. He didn’t need another song. And while I think that the director believes what he’s saying (Hugh very convincingly said some similar things), I don’t think the song would be there if not for the possibility of an Oscar.
3. The visuals are breathtaking. Whether it’s Jean Valjean walking on hills or schoolboys building a barricade, the money was spent well. And the costumes are gorgeous (or not, when they’re not supposed to be). Many, many Oscars will probably go to the behind-the-scenes creative people, and they deserve them.
2. The entire score was sung live, which is a very good thing. I’ve never been totally and completely sold on the idea of movie musicals, because I feel like the lip-syncing hurts the acting. The actors record the soundtrack months before they start filming the movie, and then while filming they have to concentrate way too much on matching what they did on the recording. Acting is all about responding in the moment, and how can you do that if you’re completely locked into something?
Just about every word of Les Misérables was sung live while the movie was being filmed, and this made the acting spontaneous and rich and moving (well, except for Russell Crowe…). According to Anne Hathaway, there was one scene where Hugh Jackman was getting buckets of water thrown on him, and the microphones would have been ruined, but other than that it was sung live, take after take after take.
The way they did it was by outfitting each actor with a tiny earpiece, so that they could hear piano accompaniment that wouldn’t be picked up by their microphones. They were free to emote and change tempo and let their emotions guide them. The movie was scored after filming was done, following the actors’ tempos. I can’t even imagine how difficult this must have been, but it was worth it.
This is an excellent clip of some of the actors and creative team members talking about why they chose to film this way, and what it was like:
1. It’s really, really good. It stayed with me for a long time after I walked out of the theater. In fact, I just might have been singing as I walked home from the subway. It’s good enough to overcome its length, and too many songs, and yes, even Russell Crowe. It’s quite an achievement, and I’ll be seeing it again.
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