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So I saw Les Misérables on Christmas Day
blaisepascal
On Christmas Day, skitten, her parents, and I went to see Les Misérables.

The short review is: I'm glad I saw it, but I don't think I particularly want to see it again. I don't know if it was the whole genre of Broadway Musicals, this particular musical, or this particular staging of this musical, but in many ways it didn't work for me.



I don't live near any major areas where big, Broadway musicals are performed. The biggest playhouse in town has about 300 seats with a thrust stage. Touring companies for big shows might come to a city about an hours drive away. So I've seen few live musicals, and I've never seen Les Misérables before. I have owned the Broadway cast recording for close to 20 years, however, and used to listen to it often. I like the music. Which is good, because the movie is all about the music.

The movie is full of music. With a running time of 2h37m, if you lop off 7 minutes for credits, that leaves 2h30m. It feels like at least 2h15m of that is spent in song (or sweeping orchestration). The trouble is that while the whole musical tells one coherent story, the transitions between songs feel rushed while the songs themselves, with a few exceptions, either set the stage (Work Song, At The End Of The Day, Lovely Ladies, Master of the House, etc) or took moments of intense emotion and spent minutes expressing them (What Have I Done, Who Am I, Castle On A Cloud, A Little Fall of Rain). There is very little script outside of the music. While it isn't as disjointed as would a series of music videos of the songs, it can feel that way at times.

The music is well done. The production did something unusual for movie musicals in that it (attempted to) record the singing performances at the same time as the acting performances, rather than recording the music in a studio months before lipsyncing on camera. The advantage of this technique is that it allows the actors to act through their singing, in much the same way they would on stage. Hugh Jackman (Valjean) was superb at this, as was Anne Hathaway (Fontine). I cannot fault Eddie Redmayne (Marius) in this performance.

Russell Crowe (Javert), on the otherhand... It didn't strike me until much later how much of his two main songs (Stars, Soliloquy) was spent showing his feet, showing his surroundings, showing him walking from behind, showing just about everything but his face. I think this was deliberate, as I didn't see much emotion coming through his acting while singing. This may be a matter of experience: while Crowe has years of experience as a professional singer, and is an award-winning actor, his only experience with theatrical musicals was about 25 years ago, when he played Eddie/Dr.Scott for three years in Australia.

The "not showing his face" bit is more significant when you realize that every other character who had a singing line typically got a close-up, or at least a clear view of their face while singing. The opening Work Song was almost dizzying, as in parts every line was sung by a different prisoner in the work gang, and the camera zoomed from one group of prisoners for a couple of lines to another group for the next couple, etc. Similar cinematography happened during other scene-setting songs (Lovely Ladies, Look Down, etc). If you sung even a single line, your face was on camera when you sung it.

The "in your face" aspect was, however, extremely prominent in the solos by the various leads. Dana Stevens, a film reviewer for Slate, penned the telling line "Very few performers can sing vocally demanding, dramatic solos while a movie camera inspects their nostrils." I will admit that, except for Anne Hathaway's performance of I Dreamed A Dream, I didn't notice the nostrils that much (she was crying during the song, and I noticed that the tears were real enough to drain down her nasal passages and leak out the nostrils. Now of course, you are going to notice it too, even if you really didn't want to. Sorry). What I did notice was that during the long, held notes with lots of vibrato, you could clearly see their chins and necks quavering. I don't think long closeups filling the entire screen from top to bottom with the face of the singers for minutes on end is necessarily the best way to present the songs.

The costuming and makeup should get an Oscar nomination, at least. The poor and downtrodden were grungy, ulcerated, in old clothes. The "Lovely Ladies" had heavy, overdone makeup that you could clearly see their open sores through. Some characters (like Javert) wore crisp, clean, well-kept new uniforms, while others (Thénardier, others) wore military-style uniforms that looked like they dated from the Napoleonic Wars, and had been worn daily the 15 years since. The adult Éponine was fair of face, but had clearly seen better days, and sang On My Own in a torn dress in the rain. I'm not an expert on early 19th-century French clothing, but I was impressed by the look. Of course, with the extremely long, extremely close closeups for the solos, I had time to ponder if the stitching on Valjean's shirt and coat were hand-stitched or machine-stitched (it looks machine-stitched, but it just might be very good hand-stitching).

I found the perfect, clean voices and the not-so-perfect, grungy characters to be a bit clashing, at times. I would look at the character on the screen, and think "that voice, with that training, should not be coming out of that body, of that character". There were other things that pulled me out of the songs, as well. Many of the songs had little bits of French in them (names, salutations, etc), and to me it sounded like Éponine's accent would change when she hit those bits (from American to attempted-French). When she, and others, would have an accent-shift, it reminded me that this was a French story, sung in English by Anglophone actors.

All in all, I felt it was (mostly) technically superb, but very heavy on the music, and very heavy on staging the singing, and not so heavy on telling the story well. I am glad I saw it, but I wouldn't see it again.

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Though the Hangar is the largest playhouse that's dedicated almost entirely to musicals, dramas, etc., the State also presents a handful (though it's more often used for concerts nowadays), and is over 4x the size. If you're interested in seeing some well-done amateur/youth performances, I recommend checking out what Running to Places is doing there. Their presentation of the Radio City Music Hall version of "A Christmas Carol" was excellent, and they've got "Annie" coming up the second weekend in January. Youth theater isn't necessarily for everyone, but the R2P productions have generally been top-notch (aside from sound; they've almost always had a rough time of it with their microphones).

When it comes to the movie version of Les Miz, I basically agree with you, in particular your bottom line. The excessive use of close ups really bugged me after a while. The settings were stunning; let us see those, too. And let us see the actors emoting with their full bodies, not just their faces. It was distracting and took me out of the moment. Crowe's voice was decent but his acting was flat. Jackman's acting was pretty good throughout, but his voice just wasn't up to the challenge. Hathaway was strong vocally and acting-wise, which made her stand out, though her character arc felt incomplete to me (I felt like there were some scenes missing). And I'm getting really tired of Helena Bonham Carter playing the same basic role over and over again, no matter how creepily well she does it. Am I glad that I saw the movie? Sure. But I'd rather see a live staged version than sit through the movie again.

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