Les Miz

We're deep into award season, which means I am frantically trying to watch all the screeners I can, boning up for my vote in the SAG Awards. I just finished watching Les Miz, which was surprisingly disappointing, and the Silver Linings Playbook, which I liked much more than I thought I would. (Hopefully I'll get talk about that film next week.)

I've been a fan of the musical version of Les Miz for a very long time, longer than I care to think. I had mixed feelings when I heard a film version was being made. The film of Rent was very good, if not exactly faithful to the source material, but then again it didn't rely so much on big name actors. On the other hand plenty of movie versions of shows have stunk. The number one thing I heard about Les Miz is that it strongly affected its audience, leaving entire theaters full of weeping people. Since I can cry when I watch a comedy I thought I would be in dire need of a hanky, but instead I never connected with any of the characters and kind of laughed my way through the whole thing. (I know, I'm a terrible person.)

Les Miz is an odd combination of both over the top and far too subdued. Moments where the music swells and it would make sense for the actors to really belt the lines are disappointing as the actors whisper or speak the next few words. Whose idea was this? During Fantine's big song, I Dreamed a Dream, Anne Hathaway grimaces and contorts her face through the majority of the piece. This is another baffling choice. (Otherwise Ms. Hathaway's performance was not bad.) Many of the voices are thin and the voice coaches seem to have neglected teaching two very important concepts – open your mouth when you sing and enunciate clearly. Some of the actors look as though they think they are ventriloquists, not singers.

The best performance by far is from Samantha Bark, who plays Eponine. She has a gorgeous voice and her acting is natural and believable. I was not surprised to hear she has played the role on stage for more than a year. She's learned exactly what makes Eponine tick and how to make the audience identify with her deepest wants and fears. Daniel Huttlestone, the actor who plays Gavroche is also memorable, giving a terrific portrayal of the impish revolutionary. The chorus is good, with the revolutionaries sounding particularly nice. (Also they are pretty easy on the eyes, something you can't say about many of the chorus ladies, who are made up to look as though they have every disease under the sun.)

In case you don't know the story, it's a couple of things, a story of obsession between a jailer/Inspector called Javert and a convict/mayor/stepfather called Jean Valjean. (Who ends up serving a couple of decades for stealing a loaf of bread for his sister's child.) It's also a story of romance, between Valjean's stepdaughter Cosette and a revolutionary called Marius, who fall in love after one look, a la Romeo and Juliet. And of course it's a story of revolution, with aristocratic young men teaming up with downtrodden people to try and win the freedom of their country. Dancing at the fringes of all of them are a terrible couple called the Thenardiers, who make their livings by bamboozling, stealing, lying and scheming.

I enjoyed the story, although watching it again after a long break made me more aware there are some things I would change. The biggest change would be getting rid of Cosette and Marius. Their scenes drag and they're both so perfect that they're incredibly dull. Much like West Side Story would be better if we got rid of Tony and Maria and made it into a singing, dancing story about gang life at a certain time and place, Les Miz would be better without the cow-eyed looks and the ridiculous pledges of love between Cosette and Marius.

Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen play the Thernadiers and they're okay, but oddly I felt the couple lacked a spark. These two actors should have been able to carry off these larger than life characters in their sleep, but instead their performances were a little flat.

Russell Crowe plays Javert and wasn't bad. My favorite part of his performance was when he was arresting Fantine and lecturing everyone within hearing. He sings “Honest work, just reward, that's the way to please the lord.” It's the same refrain we hear to this day, if underprivileged people would just stop being so lazy and underprivileged they would rise to the top of the heap like cream. And just as still happens today, Fantine has lost her job and become homeless because she was harassed at work and fired when she wouldn't give in to her boss. The costumers and set people did a fantastic job letting us see how his plump, well fed tomcat look contrasts with that of the starving, close to death Fantine and the other prostitutes he is lecturing.

Hugh Jackman is pretty good as Valjean. It took a long time but he kind of grew on me and by the end of the film I was thinking that he was doing well. But his voice is thin, he doesn't open his mouth when he sings for much of the film, muffling the songs, and his Valjean isn't as tortured as I would like him to be. (Speaking as a director, not someone who likes to see tortured people.)

If I had the opportunity to cast this film do you know who I would cast as Valjean and Javert? Heath Ledger (I know that's not actually possible.) as Valjean, who would be masterful with the different body languages needed to portray a man who ages seventeen or so years from the start of the story to the end. And John Barrowman as Javert. Not only does he have a gorgeous singing voice but he can do cold and menacing well enough to bring a chill down my spine.

Despite its drawbacks I would recommend Les Miz. It's entertaining and if you loved the play or the original soundtrack you should be intrigued by the film.

Bonus Treat:
This week's bonus treat is another story from Strange Horizons that I enjoyed very much. Called Household Management and written by Ellen Klages this story is a sly look at a world famous detective and how he impacts the lives of those around him. http://strangehorizons.com/fund_drives/2012/special-issue-household-f.sh...