I don’t have very many name-dropping theatrical-performance memories to brag about. I saw CATS! in Toronto – but I think everyone who lived within a day’s drive and who could afford it saw CATS! in Toronto. I saw an outdoor performance of The Importance of Being Earnest directed by Linda Carson, but that won’t mean anything to you if you’re not from Kitchener-Waterloo. I once saw Maggie Smith do a powerful Lady Macbeth at the Stratford Festival (Ontario.) And I saw Les Misérables in the London West End production, about 9 months after it opened.
I had never read the novel in French or in English and I didn’t have ready access to Wikipedia-type plot summaries before going to the musical, so I didn’t know much about the story or characters ahead of time. The part that hit me hardest on that first viewing was the story of Éponine’s one-sided crush on Marius and how she struggles with facilitating Marius’s romance with Cosette. Unfortunately, that was a familiar dynamic to me in my own life at the time.
When I saw a preview of the movie version a few weeks ago, I knew I would want to see it. So I pre-ordered the highlights album of the movie from iTunes, and didn’t discover until after it had arrived that the highlights didn’t include “Do You Hear The People Sing?” (the song I remembered most clearly from the stage production, due to performing it in an ensemble at camp once) and some other important songs. Still, though, I listened to the album several times before going to the movie. That familiarity made it easier for me to take in the story and the acting, without being distracted by differences from another version of the songs.
It’s a long movie. But unlike The Hobbit, I didn’t think any of it dragged out. It moved compellingly from event to event and it was easy to see how one thing led to the next. At the end of it I was exhausted, inarticulate, and out of Kleenex. Both my cinema companions are insightful theatregoers with more knowledge of the stage show than I had, so I need to credit our discussions (in between the sniffles) for helping me articulate some of the observations below.
The story of Éponine (Samantha Barks) was still very sad, but this time around I didn’t see it as the main story. This time, I had more interest in the story of Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman)’s struggles to start over and to do the right thing, and even the parallel between his feelings about the Cosette (Amanda Seyfried)/Marius (Eddie Redmayne) romance and Éponine’s feelings. Everyone who reviews this film comments on Anne Hathaway’s moving performance as Fantine, and I agree. I liked Russell Crowe (Javert)’s singing voice a lot, but I didn’t find Javert as interesting a character as Valjean.
The colour palette of the film was noticeably limited. It started from the blue and red and colourless tones of the French flag, echoed by uniforms of guards and prisoners, and continued almost completely in that colourway, with occasional golden lighting. There was no green at all in the whole film except for some dark-green uniform jackets in one scene. The venal innkeepers the Thénardiers (Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter) had somewhat more gaudy tones, which went along with the playful mood-switch of their song “Master of the House”. M. Thénardier reminded me bizarrely of Frank N. Furter played by Tim Curry in Rocky Horror Picture Show, which was distracting. For sheer eye-candy, Anne Hathaway and Aaron Tveit (Enjolras) were the loveliest to look at. I recognised Aaron Tveit’s voice as that of Gabe from the Broadway recording of “Next to Normal”.
In the movie, the puniness of the barricade and the futility of the students’ rebellion were horrifyingly obvious, and the song “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables”, sung by Marius in the empty ruined tavern where his friends used to gather, was heartbreaking. The movie showed the scale of the rebellion and devastation in a way that the symbolic sets of the stage show could not.
It’s still playing all over, and it doesn’t need IMAX or Real3D to feel real.