Periodically, the Academy nominates a musical to stand among the best motion picture nominees. And sometimes they even win. The last musical to win Best Picture was Chicago, in 2002.
This year's musical nominee is Les Miserables.
We had seen Les Mis (as it is more easily referred to) twice before on stage, including seeing it on Broadway. As a stage musical, it is an enjoyable performance with a dramatic historical backdrop, a tale of revenge and redemption, an interwoven love story, a touch of comic relief, and a fair bathing of pathos. All that plus some quite stirring songs that you can actually hum days after seeing the performance.
But transfer these ingredients to the screen--and what do you get? Sadly, I think you get a piecework of dramatic vignettes that only just barely hang together.
Several elements work against this movie being a satisfying experience. First, there is what seems to have been a conscious decision to present the movie as though it were a stage performance. Of course, a stage is a limited space which imposes restrictions on actor and scene. Movies are free from these restrictions and can frequently bring a different and vibrant element to making a story visual. But repeatedly, the way scenes are presented in Les Mis gives you the impression of its being a stage performance. The most obvious example of this was the decision to have all the singing performed live for the camera--that is, not dubbed in afterwards. So the camera is constantly right in the face of the actors as they sing. Sometimes it works well--as when Anne Hathaway sings "I Dreamed a Dream." Sometimes it just seems forced as when Russell Crowe sings...well, just about anything.
Another example of the staginess is the way the movie goes from scene to scene. Scenes follow each other with almost no transition--except an occasional "20 years later" or some such other explanatory note. The effect is more confusing than anything else. Even the context of the movie is somewhat mysterious. It is set during times of revolution in France--QUICK--what revolution is this in France?
Did you say the French Revolution? Well, duh. It's France, it's revolution--hence the French Revolution. But, no. The uprising that dominates the latter part of the movie actually takes place in 1832, the so-called June Rebellion. Victor Hugo immortalizes this rebellion in his novel Les Miserables. But for his work, this rebellion would have been a footnote in history. What the movie presents is even more confusing.
In fact, the way each of the plot elements is presented is confusing. We have multiple story lines--the intertwined fates of Jean Valjean who serves time for the most minor of crimes and Jafvert who pursues Valjean because...well, it's not really clear why. There is Fantine who works in Valjean's factory--oh, that's after he is out of prison and becomes a town mayor and captain of industry. Fantine is fired and turns to prostitution to earn money to support her daughter Cosette who is being kept by the Thénardiers who...oh, never mind.
I haven't even gotten to Valjean's decision to take in Cosette and raise her as his own daughter, or to the students' rebellion which introduces us to Marius who is loved by Éponine (the Thénardiers' daughter), only Marius loves Cosette...
All of these elements are in the stage version too, but somehow they hang together more convincingly in the stage version. Here in the movie version, we are presented with scene after scene quilt-like fashion, only the binding stitches are missing.
Another disappointment for me was how some of the characters were portrayed. The exceptions are Hugh Jackman who is amazing in the role of Jean Valjean, and Anne Hathway who is a revelation as Fantine. Two big disappointments were Russell Crowe as Jafvert--which he plays with a flat slightly baffled vengeance. His demeanor seems to be rather like a dog that knows he hates cats, but doesn't quite know why--but, oh look--there's that cat, gotta chase it. And there's Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter cast as the Thénardiers. In the stage version, these characters are benignly comic. In the movie they are manically rapacious and grasping. The inn scene with them filching practically everything from customers at the inn is--frankly--off putting and disgusting.
I make it sound as though the whole movie experience was a waste. Well, for the most part the singing is good, at times even stirring--and isn't that what you want in a musical?