Reviewing the new Les Miserables movie

I saw Les Miserables the other day. I still have it on my bucket list to read the entire novel, en francais, but I was unable to complete the quest before the movie came out. You can’t really blame me. I started too late (well, you *can* blame me for that, I guess) and it’s a pretty slow-going kind of book. Victor Hugo was clearly the Dickens of France. He sure did love descriptive detail. The first 62 pages of the novel are dedicated to expounding on the Bishop’s personal character. It’s pertinent information, you could say, because it leads us to better understand his actions when he pardons Jean Valjean for stealing from him. We get it. He’s a very pious man, living the way of Jesus and all that. But do we really need 62 pages to explain that? In really small type?

The movie is, of course, based on the musical version of the story. It is too bad that I never finished the book, because I’ve heard that the major differences between the stage production and the movie are rooted in elements of the original story. But I can’t speak to that. I can only tell you about the book Bishop, and he actually plays a very small part in the movie version which is unfortunate because he’s played by Colm Wilkinson, original London and Broadway portrayer of Jean Valjean. He’s arguably the most qualified and credible guy on the screen, and he only gets a bit part.

Then again, Hugh Jackman is pretty credible too. He won a Tony award after all. And I’m an X-Men fan. So I expected better things from him. Maybe my expectations were too high, but overall I thought Jackman just wasn’t right for the role. He sings well, but his vocals are too weak and, frankly, too pretty (let’s reexamine the performance that won him that Tony, shall we?) And while I know life expectancies in the early 1800s weren’t particularly high, there’s something incongruous about watching 44-year-old Jackman singing about being old and willing to die in battle to save a younger man. For curiosity’s sake, I hit Wikipedia and discovered that Colm Wilkinson was actually a year younger than Jackman at the time that he played Valjean on Broadway, but he clearly wore his young-man-pretending-to-be-an-old-man status more authentically.

Jean Valjean

The other two actors in the movie that posed a serious problem for me were Amanda Seyfriend and Russell Crowe. Poor, poor Russell Crowe. I should be fair and reword that. They’re the other two singers that posed a problem. The acting was alright. But the singing was terrible. Crowe was just downright boring. I’ll admit, Javert’s soliliquoys have never appealed to me much but never before to the point where his suicide song left me hoping he’d hurry up and jump off the bridge.  Seyfried wasn’t exactly boring as much as distracting. Her voice is excessively high and shrill with a warbling, amateurish vibrato that makes her sound like a cartoon character. Disney princess, sure. Cossette, no.

There were a few hits among the misses. Anne Hathaway is amazing, and Aaron Tveit, who plays Enjolras, was a standout in his small role (but he’s a ringer).

One of the notable stylistic choices of director Tom Hooper was recording all of the audio live on set instead of pre-recording it in a studio and then filming the visual action with lip-syncing. He wanted to add more of an authenticity to the emotion in the moment. I understand why he did it, but I’m not sure I agree with the decision. You can always tell when people are lip-syncing. It looks off – fake – and you can never lip-sync to a song you recorded months ago and have your face look the way you looked the first time.  But to have the actors sing while they act will inevitably lead to a less than perfect sound. Hathaway claims she sang “I Dreamed a Dream” at least 20 times on camera and was ultimately never satisfied with her performance. But she’s crying and convulsing while she’s singing because it’s supposed to be a highly emotional moment. It’s intimate and real, but vocally not perfect. And that’s alright… for a movie.

Most of the other actors – Eddie Redmayne as Marius, Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter as the Thenardiers – were decent, but forgettable. I expected better from Baron Cohen and Bonham Carter, but I think their parts suffered most from the live recording aspect. “Master of the House” is a comedy song. Live on stage it’s understandably hard to catch all the words and jokes. The movie version could have benefited from a clear, enunciated recording. Instead a lot of the funny lines are buried because they’re too busy acting (and putting on silly accents – why is Baron Cohen the only one with a French accent?) to sing clearly.

My biggest complaint is with the audio mix. I saw this movie at an old, analog movie theatre, so at first I thought the poor sound was in house. But I bought the soundtrack (it was on sale at Amazon) and was disappointed to discover more of the same. Solo or duet songs aren’t so bad, but ensemble numbers, like my favorite “One Day more,” are flat. Rather than weaving together harmoniously, the different parts obliterate one another as if everyone were just trying to sing the loudest. The Original London Cast recording, which I’ve enjoyed for many years, is in stereo. Certain parts are on the left, others on the right. It helps to distinguish the voices. The movie soundtrack is mono. Everything is everywhere, overwhelming itself and the listener.

I’m sure it sounds like I hated Les Miserables, the movie, and that’s not entirely true. It’s beautifully shot. The slums and sewers of Paris look very realistic. And as I said, the acting is generally very good. But Les Miserables is a musical that is entirely sung. There is no dialogue. Just singing. So to focus exclusively on the quality of the acting, at the expense of the audio production, is an injustice to the source material. This didn’t have to be a musical, but it is. Do you hear the people sing? Unfortunately, yes.

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