We Heard the People Sing – A Les Misérables Review

Timing is everything, or so we learned this week when Veronica happened to be on her way to the bathroom just in time to notice the glowing florescent office lights shining down on a glorious pass to the pre-screen of Les Misérables for last night at the Yonge Dundas theatre. We have been waiting months for this movie, so the opportunity to see it a week before it is actually released is nothing short of a Christmas Miracle.

Not only is this an adaptation of a legendary musical based on a novel that is considered one of the greatest novels of the nineteenth century, but Jean Valjean may just be one of the coolest names in the history of literature. Just say it… Jean Valjean… and tell me you aren’t instantly in love with him.

Les Misérables is set in a post-revolutionary France and tells the story of prisoner 24601, known as Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman), who is released from prison and breaks his parole to create a new life for himself. Ruthlessly persued by Inspector Javert (Russell Crowe), Valjean is determined to escape his dark past and along the way, his story intertwines with the likes of factory worker turned prostitute Fantine (Anne Hathaway), her illegitimate daughter Cosette (Amanda Seyfried) and the unscrupulous Thénardiers (Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen), their daughter Éponine (Samantha Barks) and her friend Marius Pontmercy (Eddie Redmayne).

The cast speaks for itself. Big names, big voices, all making a big impact on screen and big commitments to their roles (Hathaway cut off her hair and lost a scary amount of weight for Fantine, Jackman also lost weight and grew a beard for Valjean’s prison scenes).

Though there are a number of film adaptations, this one seems to surpass them all visually. The cinematography is breathtaking, capturing that perfect vintage look and mixing it with closely cropped shots of the actors give everything a larger than life feel which is probably the closest you will get to replicating that indescribable feeling of a live theatrical production. There are many powerful, emotional scenes (the barricade, anytime anyone died – spoiler alert, people die) that the cast should be praised for; scenes that literally moved the majority in the theatre to tears more than once.

The best part, of course, is that it’s a musical. The cast has received high praise for the famous musical numbers like I Dreamed a Dream, Do You Hear the People Sing, Master of the House, and On My Own. I mean, who would have thought that Russell Crowe could sing like that? But even more impressive is the way in which the numbers were performed for the filming. Typically, the soundtrack for a movie musical is recorded in advance and the actors mime the playback during filming. 

For Les Misérables, however, director Tom Hooper had every song recorded live on set to capture the spontaneity of the performances. There is no count in or predetermined tempo, the piano follows the pace of the actor so they have more freedom to act and perform, and the orchestral music is added in post-production.  No director has every attempted such a thing on this large scale before and it really is an amazing feat that just adds to the magic of this movie.

Our only issue with this production was casting Amanda Seyfried as Cossette. We’ve liked her in many musicals, but are just not convinced that she could handle the high register required; her voice seemed weak and wobbly during a lot of her numbers, something that was pretty irritating. Samantha Barks was one of the weaker voices as well, but she still held her own during her big number and if her only real competition for the role was Taylor Swift, I think she did a far better job than doe-eyed Swift would have done, even if the song about heart break and being done wrong by a guy is kind of her shtick. 

A movie can never be on par with a theatrical production, it will always lack that intimate, emotive feeling you get seeing everything play out in front of you and feeling those powerful voices cut through you live in that moment. But Hooper’s direction, the remarkable performances from Jackman and Hathaway and the lighthearted comedic endeavours of Bonham Carter and Baren Cohen come pretty darn close.

If you see one movie this holiday season, this should be it. Just remember to bring some tissues.

images from google images