Les Misérables, being the classic Broadway musical, is a story that most already know. The question that any cinephile would ask themselves going into this film is why someone would be interested in adapting it into a film and how they could manage to make it an interesting representation for the audiences of today. After seeing the film (which in all honesty is my first experience with the story itself) I’m not sure I have any idea of how to tackle that question in the first place.
To it’s core the film is about the changing of one’s life in a moment. When we see Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) decide to adopt Cosette (Amanda Seyfried), Marius (Eddie Redmayne) decide to join the barricade, or Éponine (Samantha Barks) decides to help Marius these are all moments where characters decide to put the lives of others ahead of their own for the sake of a greater cause which in turn creates this somewhat idealised belief in good spirited ‘Christian’ living.
Musical and film have been intermingling since the industry was first capable of syncing an audio track with the visuals recorded to film. However, for the most part, it had it’s own style and definition than any theatre production that ever existed. Les Misérables differs from that film ideal and goes deep into a complete theatrical style of storytelling by allowing for two main differences: all songs were recorded live on set rather than in a studio for actors to then lip sync to when doing the actual choreography; and the entire film (with the exception of a couple short moments during the barricade) is told through song.
In 2002 when Rob Marshall made Chicago (which went on to win Best Picture at the Academy Awards) musicals in film were instantly revitalized. The genre had been dwindling for years but with an infusion of traditional film narrative and the theatrical musical element there was now something new to strive for in the genre which got audiences wanting. This iteration of Les Misérables is completely counter to that decided structure, all in the service of delivering the most authentic version of the story to it’s audience. Where that may cause problems is for anyone unaware of this expecting to see a Rob Marshall-ized version of the play and may find time to laugh at a lot of the old age storytelling and even some of the lesser singers in the film (*cough* Russell Crowe) when they fail to hit a note here and there.
One of the embedded faults that one can find in watching such a true to it’s core, or attempting to be, version of a classic is how it treats a lot of themes and ideas with blunt tools socially within the film. Like the hunt of Jean Valjean by Javert (Russell Crowe). When the film opens we see Jean Valjean on what is his final day of bondage as a prisoner, being overseen by Javert, and before leaving he’s asked to retrieve a flag (which just happens to be attached to a massive ship’s mast) which proves some effort by him. Later in the film they meet again, while Valjean has left his parole and assumed a new name, but Javert doesn’t seem to recognize him. However, there is a moment (not too soon after they meet) where Valjean must perform an exceedingly taxing physical task, in order to save a man’s life, and the music plays that is a carbon copy of what played when he lifted the mast in the opening scene and we get that ‘recognizing’ look which just feels like such a dated way of presenting a familiar moment for characters in film.
Another feature of this film, which some may see as a negative, was the bland direction. Especially in a lot of the musical scenes. Due to how it was all recorded (live) most (if not all) scenes are recorded with a sense of stillness. However, unlike a film like The Master which did the same it didn’t feel as enveloping, but rather demanding of the audience to try and stay with what’s happening rather than daze off. While I appreciate it in some choice scenes, like ‘I dreamed a dream’ or ‘Who am I’ (the first iteration), the film definitely feels jarring by having this effect throughout it’s near three-hour runtime.
As it pertains to the music of the film, which obviously is an important element, it works. Yes the live effect creates a different feel and a musical result that if you were to buy the soundtrack there wouldn’t be more than a handful of tracks that you’d be willing to listen to on their own (one of which I’d venture to nominate would be ‘On My Own’) but within the context of the film are great. It’s refreshing to have scenes where music outweighs choreography and feels like it actually came from the scene rather than always looking like the actor is crapping their pants trying to hit a note that definitely didn’t need that much effort to pull off. Even in the moments where we can hear an off note we forgive it for the same reason we would forgive it when someone would go to see a mid-run showing of the play in the theatre. It’s the whole that matters and not any one specific off moment.