Thursday, January 24, 2013

Les Miserables (2012)


Why even bother to write about the film adaptation of the musical Les Miserables, when I can't ever be objective about it? You know what? I'm not sure, either.

This post was spurred by Hyperactive's Facebook link to his review and our eventual mini-discussion in the comments.  If he had not suggested that I write about it, I probably wouldn't have, simply because I don't think it matters anymore. But maybe I do have a story here. So I will explain why I saw it the way that I did.

Les Miserables was my gateway drug to musical theatre.

It was almost 20 years ago when I was introduced to the musical by a classmate of mine. We were in sixth grade. She told us about Les Miz because her cousin was playing Gavroche in the Manila production. I wasn't the only one who got hooked; there were a bunch of us who didn't see the show but became fans. The inevitable happened--we craved for more. Thus, the other mega-musicals of the era followed: Miss Saigon, Phantom of the Opera, the rest of the Andrew Lloyd Webber canon...

I remember sharing the double cassette tape of the Les Miz Original London Cast recording with my brother. The song titles were printed on white stickers on either side of the tapes, which eventually became beige with our constant handling. The tapes were so overplayed that our players would sometimes eat them. (Oh, I don't want to explain this to the kids anymore. Basta.)

My brother and I enjoyed the Les Miserables 10th Anniversary Concert, too. He was the one who bought the album. I believe we even recorded the televised show on VHS. By the time the 25th Anniversary Concert came around, everything was online already, so it wasn't that hard to geek out.

Yes, I bought a book for its cover
Point being, I love the show. Nevermind that I only watched it in 2000 from the farthest section with a cheap ticket from Leicester Square. (Joanna Ampil played Eponine. That made me really happy.)  Nevermind that I didn't finish the 1400-page complete and unabridged book. I still managed to absorb the easy 300+ pages of an abridged version. Cheater.

Clearly, I am not the biggest fan of the musical either--I can't remember every name in the OLC ensemble and it's not even my favorite musical of all time--but I'm sure we Les Miz lovers number in the millions and we are passionate about it to this day.

So when the film casting speculations started to circulate, of course I was breathless with anticipation. When the teasers started coming out, I was still able to contain myself. When the excerpts surfaced, I felt I had seen enough and that I could manage my expectations.


When the featurettes were posted, I watched them all and enjoyed the production details that I missed from not doing theater for years. And when came out with Les Miserables advent calendar (go on, open it!), I checked it every week (not daily--that would have been really unbearable) because I needed a fix.

I avoided reviews like the plague and went home to the Philippines for the holidays annoyed that the only thing in the way of me watching Les Miz was the Metro Manila Film Festival, which starts on December 25 every year. Mmff talaga!

When I came back to Kuala Lumpur, I made sure to watch Les Miz on the first weekend I could. But when I did...(And this is the part where I need to plagiarize my Facebook comments and assume that you've seen the film.)

The film started out big and grand, as I had never seen the chain gang before. But like the ship in the opening sequence, the film quickly showed that it wasn't the watertight epic I was hoping it would be. The big question was:

Where were the melodies? Where there actually songs?

It's unthinkable to accuse Claude-Michel Schonberg and Alain Boublil of creating music that is forgettable. Their forte is getting audiences to remember the themes. How come nothing stuck?

I might have the answer: the music was sacrificed in the name of ownership and acting. Then again, you don't have to rewrite the sheet music to own a song. It's also possible to act and still stay more or less faithful to the book (and I don't mean the Victor Hugo one).

I've admired Hugh Jackman since I found out about The Boy From Oz. Since his "Bring Him Home" made me cringe, I don't know what to think of him anymore. Man, was that unlistenable.

There is nothing bad you can say about Anne Hathaway and she's a shoo-in for the Oscar. Her part of the story was the most moving one for me. (Though the actress is only human, as Ricky Lo knows. I don't intend to watch his or Manny the Movie Guy's interviews, but Jessica Zafra's dissection of the non-event is enough for me.) That doesn't spare her from Hatha-haters, though.

The Thenardiers are not as effective as they are onstage. And really, is it too much, Mr. Mackintosh, to have a Marius with dimples? Just kidding.

Not even the presence of the original stage Jean Valjean, Colm Wilkinson (as the bishop), could save the film. But he was the model of simplicity, true to his character. And that is because he didn't need to prove that he can sing. It was nice to have Aaron Tveit and Samantha Barks there. I'm on the fence about Amanda Seyfried and Eddie Redmayne. I will be harsher to movie stars than to theater people, but props to them for going through six weeks of rehearsals.

As for Javert...poor guy. Moving on...

You left your coat, dear. Every woman is an Eponine. That's why we react to that waist. It's hard enough to breathe, all the more to sing. © Universal Pictures  

Schoolboys. Just as foolish in the 19th century. © Universal Pictures

Let's face it: there's nothing quite as amazing as a revolving barricade. The barricade is a character on its own. If it is not dynamic, it is dead.

The zooming-out-to-the-heavens shots reminded me of the Phantom of the Opera film. Joel Schumacher was crucified for that (but more because he gave Batman nipples than for anything else), but in hindsight, POTO is much more watchable than Les Miz. Not so sure I'd listen to its soundtrack but I definitely cannot listen to the Les Miz film soundtrack. Or even watch it again. In a few years, perhaps, for a sing-along. An aside: you should see the version I saw in the cinema. It had subtitles in English, Malay and Chinese. Mic na lang, karaoke na!

Ay, sorry. Where was I?

I want to believe that Tom Hooper is an intelligent director and that he tried his darndest to put this film together. There were some smart choices there--live singing and the addition of the new song, to name two. Surely he could have done something to make the lovebirds not look like complete fools. He doesn't really care about them, does he?

It's understandable that the female echo in "Drink With Me" disappeared, but taking away the Fantine-Eponine harmony at the finale? That, for me, was the last straw.

And now, a word on all those closeups. The cinematography is as unforgivable as it is unforgiving. If you're going to be all auteur with a musical of this magnitude, you'll alienate not just theatergoers but film lovers for whom every shot, every angle has to be meaningful.

Les Miserables went on to win the Golden Globe for Best Musical or Comedy. Salmon Fishing in the Yemen was robbed! That was a much smaller film but very well made. Fine, smaller films are much easier to get right. In the case of Les Miserables, scale was always part of the equation. But it is not the only thing that matters.

Do you hear the (theater) people sing praises for the movie? It had heart, yes, but I'm not sure if it beat with the glorious music that is the soul of the musical we love. And that is why it made me more miserable than I thought I would be.

I wanted to pick a fight (and still do) with my boss when he said that the movie is better than the musical. It makes my blood boil. Then I stop to think. Am I the more irrational one, 24601?

Les Miserables is still a motion picture event and a milestone for movie musicals. Some viewers might need hankies. If you haven't seen the film, go see it. Let's compare notes afterwards. Talking about it helps me make sense of these intense reactions that took me quite a while to explain. (Another reason why this entry is getting longer and longer.)


  1. beautifully written! love the final paragraph.

  2. Catty, catty. :) Thoughts on this to follow in my own entry where I try to make sense of my standards in adapting a musical to a movie. Les Miserable is big enough for a movie, so why didn't they make it fit?


    1. Is there such a thing as too big? Looking forward to your entry, Mia!

    2. I think it fit, but they didn't trim in the right places and put too much on the rest. It just wasn't a good fit.

      Lessee if I can write tonight or tomorrow. :)

  3. Okay, you pretty much summed up everything I had to say about the movie. Beautifully written.