Once upon a time, adapting Broadway and West End hits to the big screen made financial sense. But in the post-MTV era, it makes little except for “Les Misérables,” or as everyone calls it “Les Mis.”
A true global sensation, the stats for this show are staggering: Now in its 27th year, the musical’s various productions have been seen by more than 60 million people in 42 countries in 21 languages.
So the film is probably as close to an ordained hit as you’ll get in the movie world. Millions of fans of “Les Mis” will no doubt love it, and many others who have heard about it or just seen that iconic poster of the waif Cosette will turn up too.
But is this last hurrah any good?
Let me confess my prejudices. I’ve never been a fan of the stage-to-screen musical. I much prefer musicals conceived directly for the screen.
These include Warner Bros.’ backstage musicals where Busby Berkeley created such intricate production numbers; RKO with Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers’ graceful dance duets; Paramount with its stable of European-born directors such as Ernst Lubitsch and Rouben Mamoulian; and MGM starting with the Judy Garland-Mickey Rooney campus affairs to the glory days of producer Arthur Freed that saw “The Bandwagon,” “An American in Paris” and “Singin’ in the Rain” roll nonchalantly out of his hit factory.
Broadway hits turned into movies, whether these be older ones such as “Showboat” and “Kiss Me Kate” or later versions such as “Hair” and “Fiddler on the Roof” are for me dreary, stagey affairs overwhelmed by costumes, make-up and artifice.
The only exceptions that comes to mind are the works of the late dancer-turned-movie-director Bob Fosse who managed to re-conceive “Sweet Charity” and “Cabaret” for the big screen.
That being said, “Les Mis” is a great way to close out the genre if indeed that’s the case.
As I watched this weighty (160 minutes) and often preposterous though tuneful tale, the thing grew on me despite an awkward start.
The director is Tom Hooper, fresh from his “The King’s Speech” triumph. In the early scenes he seems to be throwing the movie in your face.
The scale is huge with the camera swooping up and around monumental sets as if to show off the producers’ money. Hooper jams his camera into actors’ faces in off-putting extreme close-ups as they vocalize, making the performers look grotesque.
Makeup is hugely exaggerated. Every syphilitic sore, every bit of flesh ravaged by starvation, exposure and beatings, is laid bare. The lipstick and eyes of the whores would send even the horniest men screaming in the opposite direction.
The filthy, matted hair and and ragged clothes shriek POVERTY. Yet you know the costume and hairdressing budget alone would have fed the population of 19th-century Paris for two years.
Then, gradually, the characters and story take hold. The music, owing more to opera than musical comedy, splendidly carries along this story of injustice, obsession, morality and redemption. I also give much credit to Helena Bonham Carter and Sasha Baron Cohen.
The latter two appear as the Théonardiers, a corrupt innkeeper and his unnaturally cruel wife. Their rousing “Master of the House” number with an ensemble that comprises their woeful inn and its depraved customers represents the film’s first note of comedy. The effect lingers.
From this point on, the film seems to acknowledge the Dickensian exaggeration and two-dimensional nature of many of the story’s gleefully villainous characters with a wink and a nod. It starts to resemble a party with great music, in other words.
On stage, “Les Mis” masterfully evoked 19th-century France and Paris before Haussmann with its grand quarters, stinking sewers, wretched dwellings, narrow streets and barricades for the anti-monarchist insurrection of 1832.
But in a movie nothing needs evoking. Here are those hold-your-nose sewers and long stretches of aging boulevards. Instead of a piece of scenic design behind an actor downstage right, there is Notre Dame looming behind police inspector Javert as he vocally contemplates his single-minded obsession.
It is Russell Crowe who plays Javert, the story’s villain and epitome of all things wrong with France of that era. His character is a bear of a man who has never had an original thought in his life. He came from the slums but the viciousness it bred has never bled away.
Crowe’s singing is less painful than one might imagine. He manages to get through the movie with dignity, a thing that escaped, say, Pierce Brosnan in “Mamma Mia!”
It may seem strange to start the cast roll call with the villain but Crowe’s Javert tends to stand out because in this “Les Mis,” to paraphrase the title of an old Jean Kerr book, the snakes have the best lines.
Along side Crowe’s dark copper and Carter and Cohen’s larcenous innkeepers, the heroes pale. Hugh Jackman plays Victor Hugo’s sturdy and abused hero, Jean Valjean, a man who pays for the theft of a loaf of bread with a lifetime of misery.
Jackman is a terrific all-around performer, at ease in acting, song and dance (though no dance is required here). He makes a fine Valjean for this day where a great Valjean would be hard if not impossible to come by.
The era lacks leading men adept in musical skills. And one so blessed as Jackman lacks the force field that a movie star brings. He does well enough though as does Amanda Seyfried — who in “Mamma Mia!” did display superior music talent — in the role of Cosette, the waif grown up. (Isabelle Allen is quite good as the young Cosette.)
Anne Hathaway as Cosette’s luckless mother, Fantine, is fate’s punching bag. From first scene to last — she more or less is out of the movie by the first act — Fantine struggles against the vicissitudes of life for a mother who bears a child out of wedlock.
Hathaway vocalizes her tribulations with poignancy in songs such as “I Dreamed a Dream” and “Come to Me.” She earned rare applause at the press screening.
In the latter sections that deal with the Paris uprising, Eddie Redmayne’s Marius is a macho enough guy but with sensitivity — so much so that he is able to go from pining for Cosette to preparing for the French army within a single lyric.
The standout from an acting and vocal standpoint in these sections is Samantha Barks as Éponine, the Théonardiers’ unfortunate daughter, in love with Marius but a distant second on his dance card to her childhood playmate, Cosette.
Hooper has at his disposal an army of extras, magnificent interior and exterior sets and the aforementioned costume and hair designs to recreate an imaginary France circa 1815 to 1832.
It’s alternately a grubby, disease-ridden slum and a fantasia of grand buildings and boulevards albeit ones that have seen better days. It represents the very best traditions of British set design.
British, you say? Isn’t this French?
“Les Mis” began its life as a failed French musical but was resuscitated in an English-language version produced by Cameron Mackintosh. The English have owned it ever since.
The accents here are nearly all English, even a bit of Cockney gets thrown in for lower-class characters. Eve Stewart’s production design is reminiscent of that for the British musical “Olivier!” Theatricality dominates.
Danny Cohen’s cinematography goes in for mighty crane shots that swoop the camera up for bird’s eye views then back down to revel in the gutters, thus underscoring the song “Look Down” directed by beggars and the impoverished toward the rich in their carriages.
The final scenes with love if not democracy triumphant — death coming to the valiant of heart, and the spirit of Fantine, long vanquished by a cruel society, re-appearing — has an intense emotional impact that the music (by Claude-Michel Schönber with lyrics by Herbert, Kretzmer) greatly heightens.
Victor Hugo’s immense novel (some 1,400 pages plus) has birthed a long-lived stage triumph that has in turn birthed a substantial and most entertaining film musical.
Opens: December 25, 2012 (Universal Pictures)
Production companies: Universal Pictures in association with Relativity Media presents a Working Title Films/Cameron Mackintosh Ltd. production
Cast: Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, Anne Hathaway, Amanda Seyfried, Eddie Redmayne, Aaron Tveit, Samantha Barks, Helena Bonham Carter, Sacha Baron Cohen
Director: Tom Hooper
Screenwriters: William Nicholson, Alain Boubll & Claude-Michel Schönberg, Herbert Kretzmer
Based on the stage musical by: Alain Boubll, Claude-Michel Schönberg
Based on the novel by: Victor Hugo
Producers: Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner, Debra Hayward, Cameron Mackintosh
Executive producers: Liza Chasin, Angela Morrison, Nicholas Alllott, F. Richard Pappas
Director of photography: Danny Cohen
Production designer: Eve Stewart
Music: Claude-Michel Schönber
Lyrics: Herbert, Kretzmer
Costume designer: Paco Delgado
Editor: Chris Dickens
PG-13 rating, 160 minutes