As many fans of the classic musical Les Miserables were waiting for the movie to arrive, there were whispers that maybe this would wind up as a disappointment. Most were confident Hugh Jackman would be a very credible Jean Valjean, but could Russell Crowe become a great Javert as Roger Allam? Could Anne Hathaway, who had to deal with a Devil who wore Prada, possibly be Fantine? That's like stealing The Dark Knight Rises as Catwoman.
Lily Kane as Cosette? Borat as Thenardier?
YES...to all of that and more.
True, it's not exactly like the musical that's familiar to those who saw it on Broadway, or in concert form on PBS every pledge drive. Director Tom Hooper turned the musical into an adaptation of the story, with help from the original writers. That's why you notice one song has been moved, another was left out, another was split into two parts,some extra lyrics that people never heard before, and, to some, the real Jean Valjean--aka Colm Wilkinson--mysteriously turned into the compassionate Bishop of Digne. This was done with the participation of Alain Boublil, Jean-Marc Natel and Herbert Kretzmer. It's still their musical.
Others have complained about so many close-ups, or that the actors' singing voices aren't pitch perfect. Well, it's the movies, where you always have to be ready for your close-up. Also, they are doing their roles as if it's straight acting while singing. That's why Valjean, who is still shaken by the compassion the Bishop gave him despite stealing silver, doesn't sing "What have I done?" perfectly. He doesn't have to. He's acting and singing in the moment. They all are.
It's also a jolt when we see Jackman, gaunt and bearded, suddenly become a factory owner who fails to help one of his workers, leading him to his true redemption. He is great as Valjean, and reminds me a bit of Wilkinson.
Now to Hathaway, who will be Best Supporting Actress for everything in 2013. Her big solo, "I Dreamed a Dream", is moved after "Lovely Ladies" because the movie decides she has to make that one big fall from unemployed factory worker to debased prostitute before the classic song about how she was deserted by a man she once loved, leaving her with child. Her big song is shown all in closeup because she feels shame for what she has done, and what she has lost. The last thing she would do is stand and make her statement. Seeing her breaks your heart, and it shows why this version of Les Miz should get its due from more people.
Russell Crowe can sing, usually rock and roll. He does fine as Javert, strutting along with his total certainty that he is never wrong about the law. However, I didn't like his version of "Stars". It didn't have that heft I've seen from the PBS versions. If he wants to try another musical, maybe Jackman can get him in Oklahoma or something like that. I did like their fight during "The Confrontation".
When I heard Sasha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter were going to be the sleazy and amoral Thenardiers, I really hoped they would pull it off. After all, Tim Burton proved they can handle musicals, thanks to Sweeney Todd. The best way to look at them is ask "How could they play the Thenardiers, if they can't be Alun Armstrong and Jenny Galloway?"
The answer is simple: be out and out sleazy, and they do become that. The movie also adds something interesting: we see that young Cosette grew up with young Eponine, who was treated a whole lot better and went along with their scams. That's a slight nod to Cinderella, with Valjean as the fairy godfather ready to get Cosette out of there.
Speaking of Cosette, I liked Amanda Seyfried in that role. She was a lot better than Katie Hall from the 25th anniversary version, but her voice kept reminding me of Jeanette MacDonald. Samantha Barks, who played Eponine in the 2010 concert, is also good, although they cut part of "On My Own."
Also, this movie found a good Marius in Eddie Redmayne, especially when he sings "Empty Chairs and Empty Tables." Nick Jonas should be shoved into the nearest theater, watch this movie, and be told THAT is how Marius should be done. Michael Ball is even better, but still.....
There's also an original song called "Suddenly", where Valjean realizes his responsibility to raise Cossette. It's not bad, but it stalled the momentum from when he gets Cossette to when Javert goes looking for both of them. There's also a surprising twist of coincidence which I hope is in the book.
For those who was disappointed "Les Miserables, the movie" isn't "Les Miserables the musical on film," give it another chance. It's a very good adaptation of the musical for film, with the original writers helping out. It's Les Miserables, the genuine musical article. At least it'll be more successful than Rock of Ages.