For the last however many months, I've been geeking out over each new tidbit that came out about the movie. Hugh Jackman as Jean Valjean! Anne Hathaway as Fantine! Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter as the Thenardiers! Could there be better casting? I can't imagine how. And to top it all off, somehow they found a little girl to play young Cosette who looks exactly like the iconic picture.
So I finally saw it today. It was great and I cried buckets. The main impression that I have of the film, (and I'm saying this as an observation, not a criticism) is that it wasn't very theatrical. What do I mean by that? Well, it depends somewhat on the theater, but usually when you see a play, and especially a musical, you're separated from the action. For example, take the opening number of Les Mis when all the convicts are singing "Look down, look down..." Well, when I saw the play, I was sitting in the balcony, so I was literally looking down at them, and from a relatively long distance. In the movie, the camera takes you right down into the pits with them. And it stays there. I would say about 80-90% of the movie is people singing in close-up, looking either directly into or in the general vicinity of the camera. It's almost a documentary feel, like these people are just telling you their stories, only in song form. Through all the wretchedness and the degradation and the injustice and the violence and the bloodshed, you're right there, experiencing it alongside the characters. Entertainment Weekly singles out the "I Dreamed a Dream" scene as having "uncomfortable intimacy" but really, the whole movie is like that. While often uncomfortable, the intimacy of the screen does have certain advantages. For example, it allows Javert to have an unexpected humanizing moment while inspecting the bodies of those who died on the barricade, a moment which I won't spoil. Prior to that, when Valjean meets Javert again for the first time since changing his identity, his fear at being found out is visible on screen in a way that it isn't on stage. The effect that just Javert's name has on Valjean is amazing to behold and you don't get that from the stage, at least not when you're sitting in the balcony.
It's so strange to see the movie after seeing the play once all those many years ago. By and large, there were a lot of moments that I remembered. There were a few moments that I didn't remember from the play, but then there were moments that I did remember that were precipitated by moments I didn't remember but must have been there. But for the most part it was pretty much the same as I remembered it, which surprised me in that most film adaptations make some changes and sometimes the story changes so much to be nearly unrecognizable (cf. the Disney animated version of Hunchback of Notre Dame). I think I bought a souvenir program when I saw the play; I wonder whatever happened to it. It would have really come in handy today.
Really, it's just so weird to watch it again when I'm nearly twice the age I was then and such a different person in so many ways. Back then, the character I most identified with was Eponine because, at that point in my life, unrequited love was about the only real difficulty that I'd ever endured. Nowadays I don't have a lot of patience with Eponine; to all the 17-year-old girls out there, I'll just tell you right now that being spurned or ignored by that guy you like isn't the worst thing that could happen to you. Nowadays I identify much more with Fantine, although thankfully I haven't endured quite the number or depth of hardships that she does. At this point in my life, I'm in a reasonably good place, but it sure isn't where I thought I would be at my age.
So it was a great movie and I recommend it, but there were some things about it that were kind of funny or just odd. I'm very pleased with the actress they cast to play Eponine, especially after that scary rumor that Taylor Swift1 was going to get that part, but man...I assume she must have been corsetted within an inch of her life because her waist looked approximately the circumference of a drinking straw. And yet, being corsetted would make it harder to sing, so maybe she is just really that skinny? I found it strangely hilarious that they got the most nondescript, average-looking guy in the history of the movie musical to play Marius. I mean, it makes sense because the revolutionaries, or whatever the proper term is, probably were just average guys, but on the other hand, he has these two hot chicks swooning over him, singing in angst that they don't want to LIIIIIVE withOUUUUUUUT HIM! and it's like, "Ladies, by movie standards this guy is no real prize; you can do better!" Also, you just know that if Marius was the main character they would have gotten Justin Bieber or someone of that ilk to play him. Or Robert Pattinson, which I actually wouldn't have minded. Oh, and Cosette and Marius pledge themselves eternally to each other after having known each other for maybe all of five minutes. Uh-huh.
And then Jean Valjean sings "Bring Him Home"...don't get me wrong; it's a beautiful song and I love it, but it's set in a stratospheric octave, and he ends the song kneeling next to the sleeping Marius, screeching the highest notes of the song up to the heavens, and I just thought to myself, "You really expect us to believe that Marius, or anyone else, would sleep through that?"
There is a part of the movie that's meant to be funny, which is the Thenardiers. All the casting was great, but the Thenardiers were inspired. Monsieur Thenardier hilariously keeps getting Cosette's name wrong, which I don't think was in the play, but I could be wrong. It said elsewhere in Entertainment Weekly that Sacha Baron Cohen once played Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof (in college, I think it said, although he would call it university) and let me tell you, I would pay SOOOOOOOOOO much money to see that.
I don't care what anyone says; I love the fact that they did all the singing live. Maybe it wouldn't be ideal for every movie musical, but for this one it's very effective. So often people (those involved in the production as well as audiences) treat a musical as a concert with a story instead of acting with singing; this movie is decidedly, refreshingly the latter. The beauty comes less from impeccable vocal technique and more from emotional authenticity, which is right for this movie because it's so raw and unflinching in its depiction of poverty and degradation that the standard musical conventions would just come across as ridiculous.
And I'm willing to give them the benefit of the doubt about whether the new song is just award bait or not, because I remember when seeing the play that I was a little unclear about how Valjean got away from Javert, so I thought the new song helped to provide some connective tissue, and it didn't stand out as being different from the rest of the music.
In conclusion, let me just say this: I love you, Hugh Jackman. I love you, Anne Hathaway. I love you, cherubic-faced little girl who plays young Cosette, and I promise I will learn your actual name.
1In all fairness, I think Taylor Swift could have made a perfectly fine Cosette, but Eponine? No. Just no.