Les Miserables – 2012
This is the second adaptation of the Victor Hugo Novel of the same name to be nominated for the Best Picture award, the first being the 1935 version starring Fredric March and Charles Laughton. This film version of the stage musical had a pretty recognizable cast with big Hollywood names like Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, Anne Hathaway, Eddie Redmayne, Amanda Seyfried, Helena Bonham Carter, and Sacha Baron Cohen. Throw a couple of lesser known names in there like Samantha Barks and Aaron Tveit, and you have yourself a movie. I’ll not go into a plot synopsis, but I will comment on the acting and the performances.
First of all, I’ll say that I liked the acting, but for the most part, I hated the singing. Why? Because they cast actors who could sing, not singers who could act. It seems like a subtle distinction, but I think it is a critical one. Sure, Russell Crowe is a fantastic actor, but the roll of Inspector Javert requires a powerful baritone with a clear and aggressive tone. Crowe’s tone was so swallowed and soft that there seemed to be a lack of conviction, a trait that is central to the character. Bonham Carter, playing the part of Madame Thenardier, had such a whispery quality to her singing that it undercut the acidic crassness of the character.
Jackman was alright as the story’s main protagonist, Jean Valjean. Again, his acting was great, but his singing voice, while better than others in the cast, was far from perfect. His upper register was very nasally, so much so that his high notes stuck out like sore thumbs. Seyfried, playing the adult Cosette, similarly, had a very shrill upper register which is dangerous for a high soprano. Hathaway’s performance as the tragic character Fantine was praised so universally that she took home the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress, but again, I have to disagree. As a singer, myself, I know that one of the most important elements in singing a song, is being understood. If you are so overcome with emotion while you are singing that your tears and sobbing get in the way of the song, then you’ve just failed in performing the number. Yeah, she shed a lot of tears, but there were times in which her words, her carefully written lyrics, literally disappeared behind her crying.
And that brings me to something else I didn’t like about the music. Remember, this is a musical. You should be singing all your notes. Suddenly speaking a line in a song doesn’t lend it greater emotion. Instead, it takes me out of the song. And this movie adaptation of the musical did that a lot. Also, there many times when a song required the singer to hold out a long note. But many of those held notes were cut off quickly, destroying the musical phrasing written into the music, and giving the melodic lines a more speech-like cadence.
But in doing my research, I have found an explanation for these flaws, as well as a few pitch problems which crept into the film. Tom Hooper, the film’s director, made the choice of recording the live performances of his actors who had piano tracks playing in their ear-pieces. Then the instrumentation was added later. The advantage to this method was that the actors were allowed more freedom to emote during their performances. On the other hand, there is a reason why studio recordings sound so good.
Also, as a side note, I’ll mention that I really liked that nearly all the music from the stage show was kept in the movie. The only exception to this was one that was really annoying. The young Cosette, played by Elizabeth Allen, only gets one song in the entire show. For some unknown reason, an entire verse was removed from her number Castle on a Cloud. The whole unabridged song is under two minutes. They kept everything else in. Why not this? In fact, one of the musical’s original composers, Claude-Michael Schonberg, returned to write a whole new song called Suddenly, in which ValJean sings about what suddenly having a daughter means to him. The first time I saw this movie years ago, I thought the song wasn’t necessary. But now, I like the character development the song provides. Unfortunately, it had a really sparse instrumentation compared to the rest of the show. This had the unfortunate result of making it seem like it didn’t belong. It was pretty, but felt very out of place.
But to give proper credit, I thought some of the cast did a pretty good job. Redmayne stood out to me as a good singer who really seemed to understand his character of Marius, and Barks was a really good Eponine. Her singing was very good and her death scene was very touching.
And finally, I have to make mention of the most emotional part of the plot for me. It brings me to tears every time. There is a scene in the beginning in which the Bishop of Digne, played by Colm Wilkinson, lies to preventing Valjean from going back to prison for stealing the church’s silver. He not only gives him all he was trying to steal, but even more silver that he hadn’t tried to steal. After the police leave, he tells Valjean to use the silver to become an honest man. “I have saved your soul for God.” And it is this act of kindness which propels the rest of the story. So beautifully written.