“Do You Hear the People Sing?”
LES MISERABLES (2012/IN THEATERS) Who would have thought that turning Victor Hugo’s lengthy 1862 French historical novel into a musical would have had such long-lasting results? If you’ve never seen a stage production of Les Miserables, you have missed a definite phenomenon. Referred to as a “sung through musical play,” Les Mis was originally performed in French in 1980, with music by Claude-Michel Schönberg and lyrics by Alain Boublil and Jean-Marc Natel. However, the French production closed after only three months. At the request of Peter Farago who was a fan of the French work, Cameron Mackintosh, who had developed “Cats,” assembled a production team to adapt the French musical for a British audience. After two years in development, the English-language version opened in London on October 8, 1985, at the Barbican Centre—and has been running continuously worldwide ever since. Ironically, the original musical—even in English–bombed with the critics but was saved by audience popularity. This mirrors a bit the reception to the new film version, directed by Tom Hooper (The King’s Speech), which has garnered only a 58% Rotten Tomatoes rating from top critics yet is already a box office success with an 85% audience rating.
My opinion? The movie feels very long at 2 hours, 38 minutes, and I missed the Intermission desperately—especially that glass of something alcoholic I would have enjoyed. However, for fans of the musical, this film will be more than welcome. The cast is strong, with Hugh Jackman as Jean Valjean, the hero of the piece, who wills himself to live a better life after 19 years of imprisonment for stealing a loaf of bread. Russell Crowe is his nemesis as Inspector Javert, determined to arrest him again after Valjean jumps parole and creates a new identity. Anne Hathaway is certainly poignant as Fantine, the embodiment of the French poor during the Revolutionary period. Her demise from simple seamstress to debased whore seems to happen very quickly on screen but is in fact quite true to the original version. As you surely know, Valjean swears to the dying Fantine that he will find and care for her daughter Cosette, who is under the dubious care of two innkeepers. These are Monsieur and Madame Thenardier who bring desperately needed comic relief to all this tragedy–at least they did in the stage version I saw. Unfortunately, they are not as funny in the film, despite being played broadly by Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen. Others in the cast are quite good, particularly Eddie Redmayne as Marius, one of the band of student rebels who take up most of the second half of the production. Marius falls for the older Cosette (a worthy Amanda Seyfried) while Samantha Barks, a veteran of London’s 25th Anniversary production of the musical, is also strong as the older Eponine, daughter of the Thenardier’s and desperately in love with Marius. No wonder the film seems long! There’s lots of plot, endless singing (truly) and also endless close-ups and continuously moving camera work, reminding us that we’re watching a “big production.” I found I missed the distance between stage and audience, as well as the wonder of the stage sets. Given a choice to see this musical again, I feel I would choose the stage. But judge for yourself—this is definitely a movie to see before the awards season kicks into high gear and the songs really will linger with you for days.