‘Les Mis’ is ‘worth seeing’

Web-Les MiserablesReviewing musicals is always a little dicey, because sometimes I’m not familiar with the story, not familiar with the music, and haven’t seen the Broadway show. Other times, I know everything about it before it ever hits the big screen. Usually, my pre-film knowledge is somewhere in between. So before I discuss “Les Miserables,” you should know my past experience with this musical. I am familiar with the original Victor Hugo story. I’ve never seen the Broadway show, but I’m familiar with all the music. With that background, I must say Tom Hooper’s new big-screen adaptation is a mixed bag.

First, the story stays true to the original Hugo novel. Second, the music is often fabulous, yet occasionally tedious. Third, the performances are mostly strong. And finally, the cinematography is great. Let’s start with the cinematography. When a Broadway musical is adapted for the big screen, I typically feel like I’m watching a filmed version of the musical. Much as I love “West Side Story,” and “My Fair Lady,” it seems like I’m watching a Broadway show – comprised of several set pieces, and not much more. In other words, the staging may stay true to the musical, but the motion picture director doesn’t take us out of the Broadway theatre and into the wonderful world of the movies. One great exception to this rule is Norman Jewison’s 1971 adaptation of “Fiddler On The Roof.”  It feels like a musical written directly for the big screen, such as “Singin’ In The Rain.”  If I didn’t know better, I’d think “Fiddler” was also a cinematic original. Most of it takes place outside, the scenery is beautiful, and the actors walk around while singing (as opposed to being confined to a “stage”).

Fortunately, “Les Mis” also doesn’t feel like a Broadway show. It’s a big, bold, outdoorsy production, full of life and energy. In fact, as I watched this one I kept wondering how on earth a Broadway director would stage this material. The cinematography is so strong it made me want to see the actual musical on stage. My only complaint is that Paris can’t possibly be overcast and/or rainy every single day. I realize Hooper made that choice to reflect the seriousness of the material, but couldn’t the sun have shone more than twice?

The two leads are played by Hugh Jackman, as the ex-convict protagonist Jean Valjean, and Russell Crowe, as the policeman and ex-prison-guard Javert. Crowe would seem an interesting choice. Javert needs to have a strong masculine presence, which Crowe does, and his singing is certainly adequate. The surprise for me was Jackman. I had no idea he could sing so beautifully. If the motion picture thing doesn’t work out for him, he could have a career on Broadway.

The supporting cast features many current “Les Mis” cast members, and some of the original cast in different, “older,” roles than they played when the musical opened in 1985. Colm Wilkinson, the original Valjean, is now the bishop in the film version, for example. I was particularly impressed with young Samantha Barks as Eponine. Beautiful voice, and a great screen presence. If she so desires, she could have a long career in Hollywood.

My problems with the music are that many of the songs sound similar, there are simply too many songs, and most of it is heavy and laborious. I understand the backdrop of the Paris Uprising of 1832 isn’t a particularly funny time and place in world history, but “Les Mis” includes exactly one humorous, lively scene, the “Master of the House.” In the movie, the master and his wife are played to the hilt by Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter. Their performances are

dead-on correct for the material, but I would’ve liked to have seen a little choreography here. That’s probably a fault of the musical itself. Still, Cohen and Carter are such strong comic relief, they almost run the risk of stealing the show. Fortunately, as the case may be, they are relegated to minor characters following their big production number.

The best, and most well-known song is “I Dreamed a Dream.” The majestic “Do You Hear the People Sing” is another of my favorites. Both of their melodies reappear several times during the rest of the show, which has the effect of drawing similarities among various characters, and musically tying up loose ends.

I would be remiss to mention this musical, and consequently this film, runs about a half-hour to 45 minutes too long. It contains one too many “battle” scenes of the uprising, and about four too many songs. I found myself looking at my watch during the final act, and that’s never a good sign. By contrast, “Titanic” was more than three hours long, and I didn’t look at my watch once.

I also must complain about the cut between what surely must have been Act One and Act Two on Broadway. At this point, the story jumps ahead 17 years. I have no problem with the jump in time, but not enough is done to re-introduce the characters (many of whom are now played by adults, whereas they were played by child actors during Act One), nor is the historic context established for those unfamiliar with the Paris Uprising. Here, I fault the musical mostly, but as a motion picture director, Hooper should have done more to ease the transition.

So where do we stand with this picture? If I had to give it a letter grade, I think I’d go with a good solid “B.” I don’t have a problem with its inclusion in this year’s Best Picture nominees, although if I were a voting member, I can’t think of any award I’d give to “Les Mis.” Still, it’s worth seeing, and at the very least, you’ll be anxious to see the actual musical next time it rolls into town.