In defense of Les Miserables (2012)

I didn’t see the 2012 movie of Les Misérables in the movie theaters. Although I tried to avoid reviews, because I did not want to be influenced, I did hear that many were disappointed.

Specifically, people said that they were disappointed by the singing. Some people also complained about camera angles, and other miscellanea. But most of the complaints were about the singing not being strong, and sometimes being deemphasized in favor of “realistic” speaking and acting.

Well, I’ve finally gotten around to seeing the movie, and I must say: I disagree completely. I thought that the singing, and more generally the entire approach that the director took to the look and feel of expressing this story, was brilliant and powerful. For me, watching the story of Les Misérables as expressed by this director was a deeply emotional experience.

I’ve been trying to reflect on why my reaction to this movie was so positive, knowing that the responses of some were so negative.

Let me start by saying that the choice to use “rough” or imperfect singing was a stylistic choice. It wasn’t as though the actors were instructed to sing as thought they were Broadway performers who just came off the set of “Phantom of the Opera”, attempted to do it, and simply failed.  Les Misérables is, at its heart, a rough story. It is about criminals, destitute people, and revolutionaries. As a story, it is gritty, and it is course.

I’m reminded of the Threepenny Opera, a musical by Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill. It is also a story about common people and poor people and criminals. And often it was sung with deliberately ugly voices: gravelly, ugly voices to convey unrefined and ugly personalities of the characters. This was part of the intent of Brecht and Weill, and it helped to convey the story.

Similarly, a Broadway-centric audience might enjoy the beauty of hearing “I Dreamed a Dream” sung with the soaring, beautiful voice of the typical Broadway ingenue… but for Christ’s sake, look at what she’s singing about! She’s been humiliated, beaten, and prostituted herself. She’s in agony. How do you sing “I dreamed that God would be forgiving”, and really express that feeling, without a quaver in your voice?

Similarly, in “Fantine’s Death”, she is lying on a hospital bed, weak and hallucinating, and about to die. To me, the weakness of her voice in that song was exactly appropriate: it drove home the impact of what was actually happening to her in that scene.

This was the choice the director made, also, when he made the decision to have the most emotional songs shot as tight extreme close-up shots of the actors’ faces. In every emotional song, the power of the emotion is expressed in the facial expressions. And I have to say: these actors nailed it, every time. Valjean, Fantine, Éponine: every single one of them nearly made me ache watching their faces while singing their most emotional songs.

This brings me to another point: I think the director made the deliberate decision to make this a movie of the story, rather than a film of a stage production of the story.

The director was able to convey power with extreme expressive acting in a way that you simply can’t do on stage. When the face is looming large in HD in front of you, you need to have actors who can make you want to cry because you are watching the agony on their faces. The director took advantage of that, and in my opinion, succeeded.

This was an excellent film adaptation of the story. If you went into the movie thinking it would be a filmed version of a stage performance, then you were disappointed. Nobody stood center-stage and bellowed out perfectly-sung melodies about the fact that their lives were shit: instead, you could tell their lives were shit because of the dark, gritty, in-your-face visual portrayal on the screen, and they sang like they were living that life, and experiencing that moment in the story.

Of course, having said all of this, the movie wasn’t perfect. For example, I did not like the interpretation that Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter brought to the Thénardiers. I’ve seen both of them do comedic acting well, but I feel like they did a shallow interpretation of their characters. I also feel like they didn’t fully understand the characters, or some of their lines. For example, when M. Thénardier refers to her husband as a philosopher, a “regular Voltaire!”, she is being sarcastic. But Ms. Carter simply does not convey that when she delivers the line. (Contrast that with the way the line is sung–perfectly–by Jenny Galloway in the 25th Anniversary production! Whew!)

All in all, the stylistic approach taken by this movie was a brilliant idea, and it was brilliantly executed. If you have not yet seen it, I recommend that you do… as long as you approach it by allowing it to be what it was intended to be.


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