Do You Hear The People Sing? (Not always, but you can still feel their pain)
I was dreading Tom Hooper’s film adaptation of Les Misérables. This dread came in the wake of that very strange first trailer where we are introduced to Anne Hathaway’s harrowing rendition of “I Dreamed a Dream.” My excitement and curiosity were boundless, so was my terror that I would not like it. I have seen the iconic stage production five times, and am intimately familiar with—and attached to—its aesthetic. Imagining a naturalistic rendering of this epic musical was hard for me. How would they capture the red, white and blue theatre lights streaming through stage smoke? And what about the creaking of that barricade as the revolving stage spun it around? These, as much as the music itself, define the experience for me.
When the opening chords of the overture sounded—that deep and resonant booming—I was instantly transported to a state that could be described as ecstasy and terror in equal measure. Would they get it right? Would it be laughable?
For the first ten minutes, I found the tempo of the vocals strange, and Russell Crowe somewhat weak and muted. By allowing the actors to sing live, the songs become more intimate. In the stage production, the performances are always broader, allowing the music and lyrics themselves to tell the story. Here though—with the intense close-ups, long single takes, and live singing—the performances are not quite so broad and the music is secondary to the very specific emotions of the actors. Musically speaking, the film is weaker than the stage production.
Amazingly, Tom Hooper manages to capture some iconic theatrical moments and reshape them as cinema. On stage, when the leader of the rebel students is killed and lies upside down from the barricade, hanging by his foot with the large red flag draped over his body, it creates a very striking image that works perfectly in the context of an impressionistic set. A film functions far more naturalistically, and might this moment seem absurd and too stylized? Re-staged somewhat, the iconic moment is captured perfectly as the character is shot, falls through a window and is held by a foot caught on the window railing.
Much has been said about Russell Crowe’s “weak” vocal performance. While I did find it initially distracting, his performance grew on me. Where Javert’s presence is powerful and domineering on stage, there is something gentle and supplicant about Crowe’s Javert. His voice is quite weak compared to the rest of the cast (and certainly compared to any of the stage versions I’ve seen), but it does work as an interpretation. Crowe’s Javert does not imagine himself to be so grand a figure, but rather just a humble servant of the law. I found him considerably more sympathetic in this film than I ever have on stage.
Much of the stage musical is rousing in a broad and histrionic way; the sets, the costumes, the music and the lyrics work broadly to whip you into a state of theatrical ecstasy. “Do You Hear The People Sing” is a great example of this. With the flag waving, the smoke billowing and the actors pounding the air with their fists, you can’t help but be riled up… though the emotion is somewhat broad. But the film, with its close-ups and naturalistic setting, gives you a more specific and intimate experience of the song. We see General Lamarque’s funeral, we see the sadness and the barely-contained anger in the faces of individuals on the street. There is a sense of expectation, and it slowly grows over the course of the song. When the crowd erupts in revolt, it has a similar rousing feel as the stage production, but it works more deeply because of the intimacy and carefully wrought build-up.
Not everything works so well. Hugh Jackman’s “Bring Him Home” falls flat. On stage, it is a very still scene, with Valjean sitting on a crate just above the wounded Marius. And it should be still; it’s a prayer! However, the film takes Valjean through a nearby café while he’s singing. The emotions of the scene become obscured by the physical distance between Valjean and Marius, and by the constant movement. It is a poor directorial choice, especially when compared to the brilliance of his single-shot handling of Anne Hathaway’s “I Dreamed a Dream.”
And what a masterful choice that single-shot was! Knowing the tendency directors have, when adapting theatre to film, of opening up the action to make things more “cinematic,” I expected the sequence to be composed of flash-backs to Fantine’s youth and the lost lover referred to in the song. But Hooper opted for a far more minimalist and immediate approach, and wisely so! We are given no comforting distractions from Fantine’s pain. We are not allowed to look away from her anguished face, and so our experience of the song is no longer about the broad idea of her plight, but rather the specific reality of it.
In conclusion, my appreciation of the film is most concerned with that reality. The musical elements are considerably weaker than in the stage productions I have seen, but that is due to the fact that the vocal performances are so rooted in the physical and emotional demands of each scene. The experience of the film is something quite different from that of theatre, and yet Hooper has somehow managed to satisfy me as a fan of the stage production and of cinema.
Les Misérables (2012)
Director: Tom Hooper
Writers: William Nicholson, Alain Boublil, Claude-Michel Schonberg
Stars: Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, Anne Hathaway