“Les Misérables takes you through all of these different landmarks of your heart, and does so with ease.”
Recently, discussions with a friend have reignited my love for musicals which really started with the film adaptation of Les Misérables in 2012. I remember the experience fairly well: I wasn’t very well-versed in musicals before I went to see Les Misérables, but I can assume that in my naive state I thought they weren’t ‘manly’ enough to like. Watching Les Misérables for that first time in 2012 (actually January 2013) in the theatre was an eye-opening experience for me. Almost instantly my love for musicals was born becasue I realized that there is so much untapped emotion in movies that can only really be conveyed through song. It adds so much to the experience that I was blown away that I had been missing out on so much for so long. And though other musicals have come and gone, you always hold a special place in your heart for your first; and that is what Les Misérables is to me. But I rewatched it recently and hoped that I hadn’t built it up too much in my mind after years of not seeing it; luckily it is every bit as good as I remember.
Now when looking at Les Misérables it is easiest for me to separate this review into three parts: The sound, the look, and the feel of the film. I know the last two are pretty similar, but separating the review into two parts isn’t as pleasing. Now becasue Les Misérables is a musical, I might as well start with the most important aspect: the sound.
If you strip literally everything away from Les Misérables, including the vocal performances (which we will talk about later), you would still be left with beautiful music. The way that the songs in Les Misérables convey so much emotion, and such a wide range of emotions as well, is still amazing to me. One minute you can have a song that embodies a triumphant spirit, and the next you can be crying along to a scorned lover who wants nothing more than to be recognized by the one she admires. Les Misérables takes you through all of these different landmarks of your heart, and does so with ease. I’m not going to go so far as to break down every lyric of every song, but they are fucking incredible. If we look at the picture a little larger we will see that accompanying those terrific songs is the music itself in Les Misérables. Now with the different variations of Les Misérables it’s tough to compare them all, but I would say that the 2012 film version has the most beautiful orchestra accompaniment. The way that the music is able to seamlessly flow into whatever situation is present, and then confidently take over your ears as your heart is filled with emotion and your eyes filled with tears is masterful. And looking at things from a different perspective, I absolutely love how a lot of the music in Les Misérables is obviously symbiotic. Throughout the film you’ll hear snippets of songs or shared melodies creep into other performances, and this creates an atmosphere that feels as though it is feeding off of itself. This helps the film flow as though it is happening in real life, and it allows for the audience to be completely immersed in the story. Pulling back a little bit let’s look now at the performances. Now one thing I love about Les Misérables is the fact that all of the actors are singing live during their performances. This may not sound like a huge deal to most, but to me it shows so much in how the film feels (I know that point is coming up, but I couldn’t think of a different word). These actors being able to change the pace of their songs to fit the way they are acting is brilliant, and it allows for some very real moments in the film. This also combats the common problem of songs in musicals feeling out of place with the story; in Les Misérables the songs are the story. And I also loved how the film incorporated layered singing as well, which also added a layer of realism. But let’s cut the shit and talk abut how fucking good this actors were, shall we? I will say, right here right now, that every single actor in Les Misérables is absolutely phenomenal. Sure I have problems with a few of them, but overall there isn’t one performance that I would replace. Let me elaborate: Russell Crowe is a great actor, but his singing isn’t the best. I find a lot of his performances in Les Misérables to be kind of nasally and a bit flat. Now this would ruin a performance, would it not? Well not exactly. These problems really only made themselves apparent when Crowe was singing opposite someone who was phenomenal (like Hugh Jackman), and then when ‘Stars’ came around Crowe absolutely killed it and delivered what is one of my favourite songs from the soundtrack. The same can be said for Eddie Redmayne whose voice was too operatic for my tastes, especially when compared to other singers in the film. But when ‘Empty Chairs at Empty Tables’ comes on, that dude can move me to tears in an instant. Of course Hugh Jackman was amazing, and one of the highlights of the film always making sure to allow emotion to dictate his voice which created a very immersive performance. One performance that surprised me was Anne Hathaway as Fantine, if only becasue she gives what is easily the best performance in the entire movie with ‘I Dreamed a Dream’. And while we’re talking about surprises, let’s discuss the brilliant choice to bring on Samantha Barks, an actress familiar with Les Misérables on the stage, to play Éponine. One of my gripes with the casting (especially with Crowe and Redmayne) is that the priority was placed on ‘bankability’ rather than ‘can these people pull off these parts’; but then Samantha Barks comes along and proves that bankability was not a deciding factor becasue I had no idea who she was before this movie. Oh, and by the way, she was absolutely fantastic. I could go on for pages about why each and every actor was amazing, but for now let’s move onto the look of the movie.
Les Misérables takes place in France in the 1800’s, and besides every character being British for some reason they absolutely nailed the feel. The set and costume design were so intricately done that you can’t help but to be transported into this world as soon as the film starts. And to continue this talk of immersion, let’s move onto the direction of the film which was very unique. When watching Les Misérables I noticed that traditional direction was kind of a taboo subject for Tom Hooper. By this I mean, instead of shooting a conversation normally it would be at an angle. Instead of tracking someone down a road, we would get an intense closeup of their face with obviously handheld-camera shake. This added a very immersive, very intimate experience that almost mimicked what it would feel like to have all of these actors only 30 feet away from you up on a stage performing the same songs. These tricks may take some people out of the film, becasue they are kind of unconventional, but for me they only cemented my immersion in this already gripping world.
I guess the last thing to talk about is the feel of the movie, and honestly this portion is kind of bullshit. I’m not really going to be talking about the ‘feel’ of anything, it’s just a catch-all category for me to bring up anything that didn’t fit into the other two. With that, let’s discuss the story in Les Misérables. Much like the songs found in Les Misérables, the story is remarkable in its ability to combine so may different tones and emotional beats. Very few movies can have me holding my breath in anticipation, laughing hysterically, and crying tears of both heartache and joy; but Les Misérables achieves just that. It’s truly remarkable how this story seems to be so versatile in how it toys with your emotions, and that is one of the reasons that I love it so much. And of course the performances (acting-wise) are also amazing. I feel it goes without saying after gushing about how good every single actor was in this film, but just in case you didn’t get my point: The acting was great too. It was amazing to me how everyone managed to place so much emotion on top of their vocal performances, which again brings me back to the praise of the live singing. Everything about this movie comes together to create an experience that not only will I never forget, but one that ignited in me a love for an entirely new genre of film; and for that I owe Les Misérables an immense thank you.
Overall Les Misérables is perfect from start to finish. The music is wonderful, and wonderfully performed. The actors still manage to give great performances on top of their singing, which is seriously impressive. And the direction manages to create an experience that is comparable to being on Broadway watching these songs profaned only 30 feet away from you. Everything about Les Misérables is amazing, and it is a movie that rightfully sits in my top 10.
I give Les Misérables an A