Saw it on Christmas (opening) day, thanks to a kind lawyer at my firm who gave me movie tickets as a gift! See – there are a few good lawyers, after all! I looked forward to seeing it because I’d caught the buzz about Anne Hathaway’s performance, and since I like her as an actress, was interested in seeing what she did. Have never seen the staged musical, so went in without preconceptions, although of course I’d heard “I Dreamed a Dream” and “Bring Him Home” before, as well as “Master of the House”.
Had read a review prior to seeing the movie that mentioned Hugh Jackman’s singing as being very good, and Russell Crowe’s as not, but I beg to differ. Hugh Jackman’s singing sounded strained to me, and became more so as the movie progressed. I looked up the voice types for the show and realized Valjean (Jackman’s character) is supposed to be a dramatic tenor. It’s a rare voice type that’s genuinely hard to find even for opera (for which the term was coined), so finding one for musical theater strikes me as absurdly difficult. Valjean is in nearly every scene of the movie, and a long movie at that, so if you don’t enjoy his singing you’re stuck because everything is sung, and his singing began to grate on me early on. “Bring Him Home” was particularly disturbing because it is so high, and he has to sustain that genuinely difficult, high tessitura in the most emotional part of the movie (near the end), which took away, slightly, from the performance, in my opinion. They couldn’t find a tenor for this role? Or adjust the key for him? I just don’t understand it, because acting-wise he was right on the money. I don’t agree with talk of an Oscar nomination for this particular performance.
My feeling is the main problem for Hugh Jackman is he has a baritone voice (he played Curly in “Oklahoma” on Broadway and won a Tony), and the tessitura for Valjean is extremely high, even for a tenor. It would be challenging for an experienced tenor to handle this tessitura, and I think in Jackman’s case, although he tried valiantly, it sounded much of the time like he was almost screaming. Not particularly pleasant. His voice tended to sound ragged, and when he came down (out of the stratosphere) he was often a little flat. Also, it was so annoyingly nasal (probably in order to nail that high tessitura) that I found it whiny, and the vibrato was frequently WAY too wide. It seemed to me his support was not always properly engaged. When I start breathing for a singer and supporting from the diaphragm while they sing, I know there’s trouble.
However, as I mentioned, his acting is excellent. In fact, all the acting in the movie is good. None of the singers are weak actors. Enjolras (the head of the revolutionaries) has a polished singing technique and, as a light tenor, an exceptionally lovely voice to listen to; his acting is convincing, as well, and he never sacrificed acting for singing. No one did. The casting in that respect was exemplary.
Colm Wilkinson, who was renowned for his portrayal of Valjean on Broadway, appears in a cameo as the Bishop of Digne. I didn’t know his work or face at all, but deduced he was Colm Wilkinson (the original Valjean) because his vocal work in the film, even as an older singer, was so good. Even though this is supposed to be a baritone role, and he is obviously a tenor, his singing is grounded in an outstanding singing technique, and I could tell he had a great deal of training even though he didn’t have a large role or do much singing. Reading the credits at the end of the movie validated my guess that the Bishop was, indeed, the original Valjean (on Broadway).
Anne Hathaway’s voice is surprisingly pleasant and musical. I didn’t realize Fantine’s role is so small — she appears for maybe 1/2 hour in the beginning of the movie and then dies, so you don’t see that much of her. It is hard to overestimate how affecting her appearance is, though. Dramatically and musically she gives a seamless, acutely emotional and exceptionally moving performance. Neither does she sacrifice drama for singing, nor is her singing disconnected from the drama. She manages to scream/emote and then get back on track to actual singing and made the transition seem quite easy, but as someone with a background in opera and a knowledge of vocal technique, I can’t begin to explain how difficult what she did is to pull off. It’s likely I won’t see the other movies in which actresses are nominated for an Oscar in her category, but I’d be hard pressed to think of another performance in recent memory that was as transcendent. She was for me the undisputed standout of the movie. I read somewhere that her mother played this role on tour and wondered if she’d helped her daughter prepare, musically. I saw Anne Hathaway in an interview about the role, but this question was not asked and I’d love to know the answer. Wouldn’t it be a fabulous continuum from mother to daughter to create the definitive film (musical) version of Fantine?
Russell Crowe was well cast and I didn’t agree at all that his voice was not strong enough for the character (the one review I read prior to seeing the movie mentioned this). His certainly has a more mellow and less Broadway-style voice, and although it is clearly not well-trained, I thought he handled the singing just fine, and his acting is outstanding. My discomfort came in that he was a bit stiff in some of the scenes, physically, when he just stood and sang, but whether he was directed that way (he stands atop a parapet and sings several times, and the camera focuses on him just standing there) or if he sort of stiffened up when he sang, which is a common problem for opera singers, I don’t know. In any case, his singing didn’t bother me the way Hugh Jackman’s did and I thought he was very effective as Javert. He certainly has the commanding voice (when he spoke/sang) and persona of a dogmatic police inspector.
Samantha Barks as Eponine is a Broadway veteran in the role, and she was excellent. Her singing and acting was as seamless as Anne Hathaway’s, although her role is somewhat less emotionally intense. She certainly deserved to be cast and is a marvelous addition to the movie. Eddie Redmayne as Marius is outstanding. I first saw and loved him in a television mini series, “Pillars of the Earth”, and was happily looking forward to his performance as Cosette’s love interest. He did not disappoint. While his singing is not particularly exceptional, he can definitely sing, and his acting is so splendid that I barely noticed his singing at all. He just seemed to be the character. He has an uncommon acting gift and I believe will be one of the actors I look forward to seeing in anything he does
Generally I do not consider myself a big Sacha Baron Cohen fan, but I liked him in “Sweeney Todd”, and enjoyed him in “Les Miserables”, for similar reasons. In fact, the two movies remind me of each other with their acting singers and unrelenting darkness and depravity. Cohen really has a surprisingly good singing voice, and as the exceedingly unsavory Thenardier, is unmatchably smarmy and funny. His foil, Helena Bonham Carter, as Madame Thenardier, was less successful for me. She mugs so much, it seemed less a character and more of a caricature. Interestingly, this is supposed to be a mezzo soprano role, but she has a light, high soprano voice, and her singing doesn’t have much meat to it, although she uses it well in a dramatic sense (she is able to sing/talk when necessary to bring more heft to the voice). She and SBC worked well together, and as a team I think HBC’s performance was enhanced by her pairing with SBC. She has the ability, as all British actors seem to, of being able to flip off a light, sarcastic remark in such a way as to be both funny and sarcastic, but w/out a heaviness that makes it seem mean spirited. She and Cohen are adept at this, and it keeps their loathsome characters from being too oppressive. “Master of the House” is much-needed comic-relief and enjoyably done.
I must say the singing I liked least of all was Amanda Seyfried’s (Cosette). Her voice is especially light, high and thin, and has a fast, nervous vibrato. The very high notes (and this is also an extremely high role) were pinched and thin, and I just did not enjoy her singing at all. Since everything is sung, it’s hard to embrace a character whose voice you dislike. Her acting, as was everyone’s, is solid, and she is an extraordinarily pretty girl, but I wish they’d looked harder for an actress with more vocal training and a more pleasant singing voice. She’s the only person I would have replaced, because her singing distracted and bothered me so much. Even Hugh Jackman, whose singing was not always pleasant, was still unquestionably effective as an actor. I just wanted to shoot this girl to put me out of the misery of listening to her.
Isabelle Allen as the poor orphan and mistreated ward of the Thenardiers, (young) Cosette, was excellent. Her singing is childlike, which worked well, and her acting was quite good. The little boy (Daniel Huttlestone), as Gavroche, was equally effective as the guttersnipe thief turned revolutionary. His wonderful cockney accent was very entertaining.
Much like “Sweeny Todd”, the filmmaker captures the squalor, darkness, and despair of the Paris and the common folk of the 19th century. The cinematography and sets perfectly capture the misery of the era, and even though the revolutionaries are doomed, one can imagine why it seemed well worth it to stage a revolt against their treatment and situation during that time.
The end of the film is, thankfully, uplifting and I was grateful because if it had not been, I would have left feeling pretty depressed by all the destitution and misery depicted. Unless you simply hate musicals, go see this. It’s well worth the ticket and will transport you to another place and time. While I will likely see it again when it comes out on cable, the big screen is probably how you want to experience this movie first. Also, although the movie is longer than most, I was never bored and the time flew by.