Powerful ‘Les Miserables’ does justice to stage origins

By Donald Munro
Fresno Bee

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This image released by Universal Pictures shows Anne Hathaway as Fantine in a scene from "Les Miserables." The costumes for the film were designed by Spanish designer Paco Delgado. (AP Photo/Universal Pictures)

Haven’t heard the buzz yet about Anne Hathaway’s tour de force moment singing I Dreamed a Dream in the strong new movie version of Les Miserables?

Trust me, you will.

Hathaway — as the despondent Fantine, whose life has spiraled downward in a blur of poverty, illness and prostitution — has one of those towering moments on film in which raw emotion crackles its way to the audience as if it’s being carried by an electric current.

Hair roughly shorn and eyes sunken, her face caked with pain, she’s the picture of death warmed over as she settles in for another grim night on the street. As Hathaway begins to sing, her voice at first is barely more than a whisper. Then it strengthens. This is less a dramatic “belt to the balcony” moment, as it is on stage, and more a tentative lamentation that crescendos into a scream at the world.

There is much that is moving and fascinating about this song, particularly for a hardcore musical-theater fan such as myself. It’s shot in one take, which gives the scene a spontaneous feel, as if we’re watching a live theater event. And it explodes with intensity, no doubt thanks to the fact that director Tom Hooper had his actors sing live on the set instead of pre-recording the soundtrack and lip syncing.

But Hooper knew he was making the movie of Les Miz, not merely replicating a stage production. And that’s where this big, gritty cinematic offering succeeds.

As the song builds, Hathaway’s downcast eyes, darkened by shadows, slowly look up, and at precisely the moment she reaches the climax, light floods her glistening pupils. It’s as if we can swim into those eyes, dive down into that pain. It’s precise. Haunting. Beautiful.

Try experiencing something like that in a theater, even from the front row.

So the big question is: Does this new movie do justice to the musical’s beloved stage origins?

My answer is a mostly rousing yes. The exception is one actor in one pivotal role, and I hate to even mention his name in such proximity to the lustrous Hathaway, whom I sure will snag a best-actress Oscar nomination. Let’s just say it kind of rhymes with “bro.” As in, bro, what made you think you could pull off the role of Javert?

Let’s be clear here: Fans of the stage version of Les Miz will flock to this movie with a particular set of expectations, built-in prejudices and an intimacy with the material that will allow them to debate the tiniest of Hooper’s directorial decisions. (Expect spirited discussions in the weeks to come about the changed order of songs.)

Though they’ll be very picky, fans of the stage musical will also likely be more tolerant of some of the things that might irk more casual moviegoers. Let’s face it: The basic Les Miserables narrative has an overstuffed feel and some clunky moments, with eye-raising coincidences the norm. But we know that story — it’s almost a shorthand — and can fill in the gaps.

And we’re so familiar with the music and lyrics that I think diehard fans will be more appreciative of the deliberately less-than-stellar vocals featured so prominently in the film. (Well, most of those vocals.) We’ve heard the gorgeous voices on cast albums so many times that we understand how beautiful these songs can be. We can admire grittier, more character-driven interpretations that lend themselves to the intimacy of film — even as we retain those memories of better stage singing.

I’ve heard Hathaway sing before, and while she’s no Kristin Chenoweth, she does have a more powerful voice than what we hear in Les Miserables. But her vocals in the film fit the way her character unfolds on screen. Fantine might be doggedly determined, but she endures so much hardship that her body and soul simply give out on her. The way Hathaway sings the role adds a depth that I’d never pondered before.

Hugh Jackman has a decent voice, though there are probably thousands of actors who could have sung the central role of Jean Valjean better than him. But aside from his unfortunate straining in the Alpine-high range of Bring Him Home, Jackman’s intense star quality and dedicated performance makes him a plus for the movie.

For the most part, I’d argue that the less-than-perfect vocals in the movie are deliberate. (Even in the stage version, there is prominent “character” singing featured: think Thenardier and Madame Thenardier.) Even in smaller roles — the priest who changes Javert’s life, the prostitutes who reflect on their miserable lot — Hooper cast actors with thin or craggy, character-driven singing voices when he could have had ones with glorious voices.

And there is some Broadway-quality singing in the movie, including Eddie Redmayne’s Marius, Aaron Tveit’s Enjolras and Samantha Barks’ Eponine.

But then we have Russell Crowe as Javert.

How to describe the experience? The first word that comes to mind is puffy.

When he sings, it’s as if his uniform is too tight. The sound that emerges is mostly on pitch, but it has a cloying and congested quality. I kept thinking of a big, red, stuffed-up nose.

Excruciating.

I tried to like Crowe. I tried to give him the benefit of the doubt. I tried to rationalize that the Javert character is uptight and repressed. Shouldn’t it be fitting that the voice matches?

But all I can think is what an opportunity we’ve lost. In the name of attracting audiences with a big-name “star,” the movie-musical version of Les Miserables gives us a Javert who burdens the film instead of lifting it up.

Still, I’m willing to write off one terribly miscast role. This movie is so ambitious and beautiful I can’t help but embrace it.

I can tell you one thing: I’d much rather be Anne Hathaway this weekend than Russell Crowe.


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