A Hollywood risk, Les Mis dazzles

The image of musicals is of men tap dancing in garishly colored suits, exaggerated facial expressions, corny physical comedy and the somewhat unrealistic ability of characters to instantaneously burst into coordinated song and dance routines. But this winter, amidst the annual flood of films premiering around Christmas time, a different kind of musical showed up – Les Misérables, a far cry from anything silly or sunny.

This film version of Les Mis is definitely accessible and appealing, even to those who would normally have an aversion to musicals. I would recommend it to those not already familiar with the music because it is much easier to follow than the stage version. The entirety of the dialogue is sung, but the acting helps the audience to forget that the characters are singing, allowing viewers to simply be caught up in the action. Additionally, the beautiful cinematography set the scenes vividly, filling the screen with panoramic shots of the French countryside and the slums of Paris rising in revolution, coupled with close-ups of the actors’ faces, which demonstrated every emotion in an intense and personal way.

Most of the actors in pivotal roles were superb. Hugh Jackman played an inspiring Jean Valjean, hardly recognizable as an unkempt and bearded prisoner in the bleak opening scene. As the most dynamic character in the story, he carried many parts of the film with his powerful singing and lent some tenderness to other scenes. Samantha Barks, reprising her role as Éponine from the London stage, soared during her signature song, “On My Own.” Sasha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter deftly pulled off the drunken and shady innkeepers who provide much of the comic relief in the play – no surprises there. And last but certainly not least, Anne Hathaway. As Fantine, the unfortunate single mother to Cosette, Hathaway was given the daunting task of singing “I Dreamed A Dream,” a song that has been famously covered by countless Broadway singers and talent show contestants. I can honestly say her rendition was one of the best I have ever heard and a personal highlight in the film. Hathaway shined not only through the tear-inducing notes of that song, but also on her impressive acting ability and apparent dedication to this coveted role.

There were a few pitfalls along the way, as there were bound to be. Russell Crowe practically ruined my entire viewing experience, at least leaving all of his own scenes considerably duller. He just can’t sing, which made him seem like a blot of dark ink on an otherwise rainbowed cast exploding with energy. Seriously, not good. Additionally, there was a suspicious song stuffed into the middle of the movie that was definitely not in the score of the original show. Later, I saw it nominated for a Golden Globe for “Best Original Song” and am sad to think that the producers would ruin the cohesion of a beautiful piece of art just for a nab at another award. Another complaint? I would have liked to see more of Marius and the other student revolutionaries. The rebellion storyline didn’t get as much attention as I thought it deserved, but then again, the movie was already extremely lengthy.

Les Mis is my favorite musical of all time, and my fixation is approaching unhealthy. And the hype surrounding Tom Hooper’s adaptation was overwhelming – already an Oscar-winning director, with an A-list cast, live singing on set, epic previews, and a long wait. It is hard for anyone to fathom the unfairly high expectations I had for this potential masterpiece of musical cinema. Needless to say, I was looking for perfection. Did I get that? Admittedly, no. But there are plenty of other adjectives besides “perfect” that could be used to describe Les Mis which reflect on its value as a stand-alone film. Mesmerizing. Surprising. Emotional. Engrossing. Ambitious. Beautiful. And after countless re-hashings, multiple Golden Globe wins already and too many hours spent mulling it over, it would be unfair not to shower this movie with the praise it deserves. The good definitely outweighs any bad; I would rate Les Misérables a must-see.