Les Miserables Movie Review: A Spectacular Musical Adaptation for the Holidays

Okay, so I'm a big movie fan, a big theater fan, and I'm studying literature, so it may come as a bit of a surprise that I've never read Les Misérables, nor have I seen any film or stage adaptation of it. In fact, I've never even listened to the songs, other than Susan Boyle's famous rendition of "I Dreamed a Dream" and that one time we sang "On My Own" in seventh grade choir. I might have been the only culturally literate person left on Earth who had no expectations going into Les Misérables (in theaters December 25th). 

My relative lack of interest in the film didn't prevent me from doing a little background research. I knew that the movie would be almost entirely sung-through, with the dialogue in the operatic style. I had also heard of director Tom Hooper's decision to record the songs live, with the actors singing and acting the songs at full tilt simultaneously, rather than use the usual trick of later dubbing a more polished recording of the song into the scene. I'd heard my friends argue about whether Russel Crowe could sing at all, if Amanda Seyfried was a good Cosette, and everything else about the film. 

So, as I sat down to watch the movie for the first time, I had a basic idea of what would come onscreen: a long musical with some interesting directorial choices. What I got, though, was so much more. 

I'm not a crier. I hate most romances and tearjerkers. I will openly admit that I cried multiple times watching Les Mis, even during the second time I saw it. I watched the movie, cried, and then simply couldn't wait to see it again, and watched it the next day and cried some more. I cried in the beginning, when Anne Hathaway belts out the aforementioned "Dream" power ballad, I cried a few times in the middle, and I cried at the touching ending.

How the heck did this movie do this to me? For starters, the film is technically superb, with each shot gorgeously colored, lit, and angled, each set sublime, every moment orchestrated breathtakingly. I caught myself admiring certain frames out loud. And the music! As someone who had never heard the musical before, it was a treat to seek out each theme, delve into the fabric of each song, and see how all of the instruments and melodies worked together to create such an expansive narrative. 

All of the actors deliver inspired performances. Hugh Jackman is always a delight, and makes the transition from strong young man to aged protector well. Russel Crowe isn't a favorite actor of mine, but he fills the shoes of the inspector Javert aptly. Amanda Seyfried is angelic, Anne Hathaway fiery, Eddie Redmayne dreamy, and all the rest of the cast, excellent. 

The most divisive aspect of the film is bound to be the singing. Broadway purists will decry the vocal prowess of the actors, claiming that no one can do this or that song justice like their favorite seasoned performer. Others quip that the tactic of live recording is a gimmick designed to mask the weaknesses in the actors' voices. Neither of these claims are true, in my opinion. Though some members of the cast of this iteration of Les Mis may not have the vocal chops demanded by the pickiest of spectators, and cannot hope to match the levels of "perfection" that Broadway stars are able to produce night after night, they don't have to and it's better that way. 

A Broadway singer's job is just that — to sing their song, and sing it well. Screen actors have a different task, and the actors in Les Mis are tasked doubly. Through the live recording "gimmick," Hooper is able to capture so much more of the emotion of the song as expressed by the actors. They aren't giving a polished and rehearsed rendition of their songs, but rather each lyric feels more like a fresh thought, every swelling chorus more bursting with raw and true passion. Even in the feeble moments, when voices quiver or break, something real is expressed, and, for me, that makes the sound of this Les Mis something worth praising.  

It's obvious, and a little simple, but worth pointing out: film and theater are different. The viewer is able to experience, through the lens of the camera, an entirely different perspective on screen than would be possible onstage. Those who carry the same expectations for Les Misérables as appearing tomorrow in a movie theater near you as they would for a production staged in the West End or on Broadway will inevitably be disappointed. But the things the camera is able to reveal, and the beauty that can be created in the editing room, are not negligible. Even with a play as monumental as Les Mis, seeing things from a different angle can be refreshing and of artistic merit all its own.

I know that Les Misérables has received on average relatively negative to middling reviews. I try to ignore my fellow critics, and like what I like. Les Mis has been criticized for being, among many epithets, "bombastic," "overwrought," "insipid," and "Oscar-bait." It is obviously supposed to be extravagant, and of course the filmakers are hoping for an Oscar. Think what you will of Les Misérables, but I for one will be sure to sit back and enjoy the show at least once more. This time, with a tissue box in hand.