The guiding ethic of any film adaptation of a legendary source must be: “Change as little as possible.” Those in charge of Les Miz knew precisely what they were working with. A few songs are shortened, a handful of lines altered, and a few scenarios condensed or adapted to their original literary form, but the whole remains gloriously and satisfyingly intact.
The Work Song is set to the image of a hundred convicts battling a stormy sea to pull a listing ship into dry dock—and only here does the film’s live-recording ethic fall short, as the music and voices lack the power to match the imagery, seemingly washed out by the sea noise, where the live musical would normally captivate from the first note.
Neither of them theatrical belters, Jackman and Crowe’s performances feel subdued in the opening scene. But the film finds its gravitas the instant Colm Wilkinson appears as the Bishop of Digne, and from that instant, the next two and a half hours are nothing less than the repeated sliding of the viewer’s soul up and down a finely-honed blade.
The ability to take close-ups gives the film an intimacy that is unattainable on a Broadway stage, and power numbers are sometimes reduced to a chilling whisper. Anne Hathaway destroys herself to bring Fantine to life, and her incredible, personal pain washes in waves from the screen. The tooth removal, normally excised from the musical, is even back from the book—though modified in location. Confrontation is then viscerally set as a full-on close-quarters sword fight.
Film also allows a depth of scale that challenges the stage. The transition to At the End of the Day is a grim and powerful scramble through the slums of Paris, shaking the screen with the palpable rage of a nation. Look Down is another tour de force, while Do You Hear the People Sing emerges from a quiet, elegiac call to arms that organically overtakes General Lamarque’s funeral procession.
Samantha Barks’ Éponine lights up in her every interaction with Marius, and shots of her in the background of A Heart Full of Love are soul-rending. But she suffers just enough tiny cuts that A Little Fall of Rain is not quite as arresting as it should be, and the constant close-ups amputate the power of a scene that should captivate not only through its intimacy, but through the inactivity that washes across the entirety of a once-violent stage.
Russel Crowe’s soft-voiced Javert takes some getting used to, and while it works more often than one might expect, he sometimes seems to be singing with a sock in his mouth—most notably during One Day More, where he seems to have been mixed in at a different volume level from the rest of the cast. Yet the cinematography of Stars is simple yet stunning, and Javert’s Suicide suffers nothing in this interpretation.
M. Thénardier endures a few cuts (most notably the truncation of Dog Eats Dog), but Sacha Baron Cohen steals enough asides and chews enough scenery that his part hardly feels reduced.
The background has been filled in with elements from the novel, and those who have read Hugo’s epic will appreciate nods to Fauchelevent and the Petit-Picpus convent, Gavroche’s elephant-home, Marius’ grandfather, and the tavern behind the barricade. There is even a quick cut to Gavroche when Éponine is shot, winking at their normally undisclosed sibling relationship.
Even the finale remains perfectly and satisfyingly intact. The only challenge with a film that so precisely parallels its stage inspiration is resisting the necessity to deliver a standing ovation once the final note has been sung. If only they had found a way to incorporate a curtain call.
It should be noted that the first time I saw Les Misérables in junior high, I was so blown away that I bought the soundtrack during intermission. It was the first musical I ever watched. I saw it twice more during its run in Toronto, and still have the CDs with me in Japan. I can sing just about any track on demand.
The only problem is that nothing else even comes close.