While I had no intention of doing anything in the theater, I ended up minoring (and nearly double-majoring) in that field in college. And that was due to already taking a bunch of playwriting/scripting courses from a professor with a proven track record of having his students make it big in Hollywood. Accordingly, I read, saw and was involved in a variety of plays from Shakespeare to more traditional dramas, comedies and musicals.
But it wasn't until post-graduation that I first encountered a production that was something of a hybrid between a stage musical and an opera. And that was when my wife first introduced me to the musical stage version of "Les Misérables." Based on Victor Hugo's 1862 novel of the same name, the performance featured characters who sang nearly all of the "dialogue," including in various powerful numbers such as "I Dreamed a Dream," "Do You Hear the People Sing" and "Master of the House."
Since it first graced the stage in 1980, the musical has reportedly been viewed by more than 60 million people worldwide. Considering that, it's shocking that it's taken this long for a movie adaptation to be made from it. After all, non-musical versions of Hugo's work have hit the screen a fair number of times (most recently in the 1998 offering starring Liam Neeson), while traditional musicals have returned to some of their heyday popularity following Disney reinvigorating the format with its animated musicals and then "Chicago" proving that such films could be both financial and critical hits.
To be fair, Alan Parker ("The Commitments," "Evita") reportedly tried to bring the musical to the screen back in the late 1980s, but those plans fell through. Regardless of that history, we now finally have a movie version of the musical and diehard fans of the work could very well be split on the results. And that's because the film is a decidedly different beast. Yes, all of the familiar and beloved numbers are present and the storyline remains intact.
Three decisions by director Tom Hooper ("The King's Speech"), however, shake things up a bit. The first is mainly casting Hollywood rather than traditional Broadway talent in the lead roles. While that is more likely to bring in viewers interested in seeing how the likes of Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe and Anne Hathaway perform in the roles, they're not exactly and certainly not collectively considered Broadway caliber (yes, Jackman has performed there, but you wouldn't expect him and his co-stars to headline this on the Great White Way).
Then there's the fact that, for the first time ever (according to those involved), the performers' singing was recorded live on the set during the filming. The usual procedure is for them to record the numbers in a studio and then lip synch to that during the actual filming. All of which means the acting is, for the most part, already pre-decided months before the shooting of the scenes. Finally, while people are used to seeing the musical from a fair to nosebleed distance away, Hooper has the camera right in the faces of the performers, often in fairly unsteady close-up.
The result of all of that is a decidedly different version of the songs and thus the overall production. That's most noted in the new emotional intensity of many of them, something the stage version could never dream of achieving. For instance, during Anne Hathaway's version of "I Dreamed a Dream," her voice often breaks from the raw emotion that her character (and thus she, the actress) is experiencing at that time. I found such moments extremely powerful, especially during the bigger and better known numbers (and I wasn't alone as many jaded fellow reviewers were audibly sniffing away tears from Hathaway's performance).
And with just that number, the talented actress should earn herself a Best Supporting Actress nomination. Jackman has an outside shot seeing his own for performing the lead role, but viewers will likely be split over Crowe. While he's performed with a number of bands over the years, he isn't anyone's default choice of tackling a Broadway musical with all of the necessary vocal nuances and range, etc. I found his singing far from perfect (to be fair, he's better than I could ever imagine doing the same), but that actually worked for me as that's how I'd view his policeman character as a singer -- uncomfortable and not great, but doing it because that's what duty calls for).
Samantha Barks is perfect as Eponine (no surprise as she's played her on stage), but Amanda Seyfried and her vibrato just didn't work for me in the Cosette role (which was always one of the weakest in the stage play). Others range from decent to stellar, with Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter having fun singing and playing over the top as the opportunistic innkeepers (they do an entertaining rendition of "Master of the House").
Since it pretty much keeps in line with the stage production, the film suffers somewhat in the second act with some fairly blasé numbers, and the whole young love plotline (between Cosette and Eddie Redmayne's young revolutionary) again comes off as sappy and certainly too quick to develop. But then the big numbers kick in and all of the lesser material is forgiven and forgotten.
Overall, I liked the film, but its various standout performances and production numbers end up overshadowing the overall offering. While I had earlier predicted the movie would win Best Picture before ever seeing it (solely from remembrances of seeing the stage version and then watching the powerful first trailer), I'm not so sure that will now be the case. Good but not great, "Les Misérables" rates as a 7 out of 10.