The theater geek’s guide to Les Miserables.

Note: If you don’t want to read a review before seeing the movie, that’s fine – skip this post. But come back on December 26th and leave your opinions. I really want to hear them! (Especially if you’re a theater geek like me.)

I had the privilege of attending an early screening of Les Miserables last night. My simple gut reaction? It was very good. Can I say unequivocally that it is everything I wanted out of a film adaptation of my favorite musical? No, I can’t. And a large reason is that my expectations were so sky high for this movie – anything short of perfection, and only perfection based on how it should have been done in my mind, would be unacceptable to me. As the credits started to roll at the end of the movie, I sat there and I thought, ok, that was good. I wasn’t ready to say it was great until my dad started to rave on the way out of the theater and I heard girls sniffling next to me and trying to wipe away the mascara that was smeared all over their faces.

I have complaints, but they are nitpicky, and admittedly the product of someone who is just too in love with the musical. I think I’ve only seen it on stage a couple of times, but I’ve listened to the soundtrack about a million times, over the course of over half of my life. I have every note and every lyric of that album memorized (aside from some of Cosette’s parts, because if she and Eponine are singing simultaneously, I’m obviously singing Eponine). So when you change a lyric or the order of the songs, I notice, and I’m thrown out of the story and into my own mind, and it takes me awhile to get back into the music again.

This won’t happen to everyone seeing this show, but I think there are enough theater geeks out there that will notice the little things. Many of the reviews I’ve read have been written by people who don’t like the musical itself – and obviously, if you don’t like the musical, you’re not going to like this film. But I have yet to read a review written by a self-professed theater geek, a girl like me who has sung On My Own in the shower a thousand times, who once attempted to read Victor Hugo’s 1,400 page behemoth of a novel (during high school, no less), and who always wondered why Eponine didn’t go for Enjolras instead. So, I present to you, the theater geek’s guide to Les Miserables:

  • First of all, people who hate the musical: what the hell is wrong with you? Yes, it’s grandiose and overly dramatic and there is nothing subtle about it. It’s musical theater. People sing instead of speaking. Of course it is all of those things, almost every piece of musical theater is. The score is gorgeous, the lyrics are inspiring, and every part of the story touches some part of you, no matter what phase of life you’re in. For much of high school, I felt like “On My Own” was written for me – nearly every high school theater geek does at some point in time. And now that I’ve lived a little, and I’ve felt heartbreak and disappointment, I listen to the lyrics “I Dreamed a Dream” in a way I never did before, and they speak to me. The themes of redemption, of moving on from the past, of young love and revolution, are all very real and very timely. And dammit, I love the revolving stage, so stop calling it a gimmick.
  • That said, no, there is not much subtlety in this movie. Nor should you expect there to be. But I’m willing to bet that those of us who love the show don’t really care. We expect to cry – hell, we want to cry.
  • Which brings me to Anne Hathaway. I’d read a billion articles about Anne this past year, about how she sang live and in one take, and she went for raw emotion rather than the very pretty versions of Fantine we’ve all heard in the past. A lot of people will hate her in this role; a lot of people already hate her, for reasons I don’t entirely get. I don’t think she’s perfect in the role overall – I desperately wanted her to tone it down in Fantine’s death scene, for example – but her version of “I Dreamed a Dream” really is incredible. I think that a lot of viewers will be unnerved at first by Tom Hooper’s long, singular takes, because we are so used to the camera jumping angles and quick edits in nearly every movie these days. So you may be a bit uncomfortable for the first part of the song, seeing only Anne’s face without reprieve. But as the song approaches the bridge, and she comes more and more undone… damn. The theater was silent, completely engrossed in her performance, and what a performance it is. I’ve never cried at that song, all of the times I’ve seen it performed and listened to it. I did last night.
  • I never loved the Thenardiers, but they provide much needed comic relief in the stage version. In the movie, they mostly fall flat, though Sacha Baron Cohen does have a few good moments. Helena Bonham Carter is basically playing a 19th century version of Bellatrix Lestrange without the wand.
  • There is a new song. It’s fine, I suppose, but not necessary.
  • Hugh Jackman is solid – which is exactly what you want your Jean Valjean to be. He clearly loves the material, and I’m so happy he’s made a movie that allows him to actually show how talented he is. I think he nailed “Bring Him Home” and “What Have I Done” and his half of “Confrontation.”
  • Which brings me to Russell Crowe. He was the cast member I was the most concerned about, and he is the definitely the weakest link of the movie. Javert is such an interesting character, with such beautiful solos, and while he doesn’t ruin any of them, he doesn’t do them justice either. There was one brief moment – I believe when Javert visits the barricade – when I thought, “There it is! That’s the Javert I wanted!” But overall, the material was just too big for him, and he never quite gets there.
  • Samantha Barks, who played Eponine on the West End, sounds beautiful, though my single biggest gripe with the movie is moving “On My Own” to earlier than it should be. (Told you I was nitpicky.) For the first half of the song, I was really thrown off and barely paying attention to her performance – so I’ll have to give her a proper review when I see it again with my mom.
  • You can definitely tell which actors have stage experience – Aaron Tveit (a veteran of Broadway AND Gossip Girl – talk about range!) is the other. Enjolras is my favorite character in the entire show, and he’s even more badass in the movie version, despite the terrible hair they gave him. Tviet nails every note and every bit of revolutionary anger. I repeat, why didn’t Eponine fall in love with him instead?!
  • Marius, to his credit, is less wimpy in the movie than I always thought he was in the show. They allude to his aristocratic upbringing (which I don’t recall the musical doing, though it’s a big factor in the book if I recall correctly), which does make him a little more interesting – the rich boy joining the barricades to fight for what he believes. And I loved “Red and Black,” which is basically all of his friends saying, “Hey Marius, listen up. You’re being pathetic about this girl. Let’s go overthrow a government instead.” I was probably most impressed by Eddie Redmayne than by anyone else in the cast, possibly because I was expecting the least from him. He really does a fantastic job, though. “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables” is one of the most beautiful songs in the entire show, and he does it justice.
  • Cosette, meh. She’s boring. Amanda Seyfried is fine.
  • There’s one other song that they changed the order of, putting it later in the show than it usually occurs, but from what Wikipedia told me about the June Rebellion, the scene seemed to allude to what actually happened, so I’m ok with it.
  • Portions of the film drag, if I’m being honest. I always skipped over the sewer portion in the soundtrack.

Overall, I’d give it a solid B+. My friend asked me last night if I liked it enough to see it again, and my answer was yes. Absolutely. I have my gripes, and it’s not a perfect movie, but I really want to watch it again. I will probably buy it on DVD and sing along and replay all of Enjolras’ scenes. There are precious few things left in the world which are not ironic or cynical – and the tale of Jean Valjean and Javert and a lonely barricade at dawn is one of them. That damn barricade gets me every single time.


6 thoughts on “The theater geek’s guide to Les Miserables.

  1. Saw it today and loved it! My biggest shock was how much I enjoyed Cosette! I never cared for her (for obvious reasons) but I was struck by Amanda Seyfried!

    • I read an interview with Eddie Redmayne where he complimented her really highly and said she did so much more with the role than the show usually allows. Cosette always just bores me though!!

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