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Calling All 'Les Misérables' Fans: Let's Get Geeky About Screen vs. Stage

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Dec 25, 2012 | 11:24am EST

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This article contains major spoilers for Les Misérables.

If you're like me and grew up listening to and watching Les Misérables, you're likely bringing a lot baggage to this week's movie adaptation. Shedding expectations is key to watching something you treasure evolve into new media, and it's the same with the time-honored musical. Legend or not, to work as a movie, it had to be tinkered with, had to be pushed and challenged more than in any of its theatrical stagings.

So how did it fare? Prepare to geek out beat by beat to Les Misérables.

2012 will go down as a year of cinematic innovation, starting with Peter Jackson's divisive "48 frames per second" filming technique, used to make the fantasy worlds of The Hobbit more realistic. Tom Hooper attempted the same feat in Les Misérables, stripping away the expected glossy exteriors of a movie musical by recording all of the songs live on set. Like the high frame rate projection, the purposefully imperfect style is instantly noticeable and hard to swallow after decades of big screen musicals training our ears. In the film's opening number, "Look Down," we see the imprisoned Jean Valjean and his fellow chain gang inmates pulling ships into the docks. It doesn't get much worse. The number booms like the show, but in its strive for reality, the voices of the singers are overwhelmed by the orchestra. Turns out, it's not easy to sing when waves are splashing in your face and you're pulling an enormous ship to harbor. The number sets the stage for the rest of the picture: in the theatrical version, the instruments and voices work as one. Here, they're at battle. It's hard to fully enjoy "Look Down" because the number works as a testing ground for the style.

As is the case in the stage show, Les Mis works best when the focus is on Valjean. Every character gets a big, memorable song, but each one of Valjean's beats packs an especially emotional punch (which explains why the second half of nearly every incarnation tapers off until the final moments). My biggest fear going into the film was Hugh Jackman. The diehard Colm Wilkinsonian that I am worried that the Wolverine star was too young, too Hollywood, for the role. Unlike many of the men who have played Valjean on stage, Jackman's voice is airer and under strain from the harsh conditions (as he mentioned in Hollywood.com's interview, the scenes in the beginning of the film were shot at the top of a mountain in freezing weather — not exactly the ideal setting for a Broadway musical). Jackman makes the part of Valjean his own, and I fought my brain's urge to yearn for the phrasing established by the show. That's the whole point of on-set singing — let the actors perform the songs, not simply regurgitate them like they're on stage at the 10th Anniversary Concert. Jackman discovers a broken version of Valjean that's never been accomplished on stage in numbers like the prologue and "Valjean's Soliloquy." Plus, it's nice they threw Wilkinson a bone and brought him in to play the Bishop of Digne.

Floating with the ripped up parole papers eight years into the future, Tom Hooper's vision for the factory of Montreuil-sur-Mer is stunning and stark. "At the End of the Day" sticks mostly to the theatrical orchestration, albeit with fewer voices (logical, as there aren't that many people working at the factory). It's simultaneously fresh and familiar, the catty torturing of Fantine even more terrifying when depicted in the "real world." After the number, every Les Mis fan discovered a bit of a shocker: the blueprints had been tinkered with. Fantine's firing leads into new glimpses of Javert arriving to town, conversing with Valjean, the runaway cart that leads to a suspicious act of strength, and the raunchy "Lovely Ladies." These were necessary improvements — only in seeing the movie does one realize how silly it is to feature Fantine's big number, "I Dreamed a Dream," before her descent into hell. Beefing up Valjean and Javert's intertwined relationship is also key, although clunky, with the cacophonous spoken/sung dialogue written for the film never quite fitting in with the previously penned material. Though with the gentlemen out of the way, it's Anne Hathaway's show to steal. "Lovely Ladies" is less of a showstopper than it is on stage, but it paves the way for the tremendous "I Dreamed a Dream," a one-shot, close-up rendition that shatters any known recording. We've never seen a Fantine who had to sing through tears and a runny nose. It all adds to the impact of the song.

STORY: 'Les Mis' Movie Stars: Better Than Broadway?

Les Misérables lost me a bit around "Who Am I?," a number that needs just as much oomph as "I Dreamed a Dream." A song of redemption, Valjean's second introspective soliloquy ends with him closing his conversation with God and shouting to the masses. The film version plays it surprisingly one-note, once again featuring Valjean in one room, speak-singing until he finally walks over to the court to reveal his true identity. Hooper and Jackman side with realism over theatrical, but the number needed the boost. It needed a note that could resonate with the reveal of Valjean's scarlet letter, the "24601" prison tattoo. We didn't even get that reveal! Hooper has an amazing eye for bold framing, but where this number falls short — and where the movie does as a whole — is in innovative staging.

Though as soon as Les Mis inspires talk of lackluster blocking, then comes Fantine's death and "The Confrontation." What could have been rigid feels well-timed and organic, Valjean and Javert swordfighting during their musical duel. Russell Crowe's monotone speak-singing works when he's given meaty drama to tear apart, and "The Confrontation," a literal song fight scene, is magic.

The next chunk of Les Mis may have been the biggest surprise. After "Turning," young Cosette's whispy "Castle in the Cloud" is my least favorite song in the show. Forcefully sympathetic, the despairing tune is like nails on a chalkboard. In the film, it's actually quite lovely, with Isabelle Allen owning the song with the perfect touch of sadness. Her whisper of "Cosette, I love you very much," gave me chills — sorry every other girl who had to perform this on stage like a fifth grade recital. Allen was mesmerizing.

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The other surprise: "Master of the House" as a low point of the film. A much needed injection of comedy falls flat in Hooper's version, with Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter delivering surprisingly low energy as the lovable scumbag pair, the Thénardiers. The number feels entirely rushed, skipping over the drunken debauchery choruses to get on with the rest. It's a causal affair, both Cohen and Bonham (two performers who know how to properly play big and wild) delivering a hushed rendition of the rowdy number; the editing turns it into a jumbled sausage fit for serving at the pair's inn. Like Crowe as Javert, both work better in the intermittent sing-speak pats (like the hilarious "The Bargain"), but in a moment when the film needs a boost, they fizzle out.

POLL: Does 'Les Mis' Need an Intermission?

As in the show, the random arrival of Javert into Valjean's life never really works, but I appreciate conjuring up a sequence in which our redemptive convict must flee from his pursuer. The chase scene answers the lingering question of how Javert continues to miss Valjean time after time, and how Cosette and her father figure end up in Paris. It also sets up the new number, "Suddenly," a sweet lullaby that fits nicely into Valjean's song book. While it's not a time in the show that needs beefing up (a new song in Act II for Valjean or anything for Older Cosette would have been appreciated), "Suddenly" isn't an egregious addition to the sacred text thanks to Jackman's gentle high range.

Thanks to the enhanced escape from Montfermeil, Javert's "Stars" receives the buildup it deserves. Unfortunately, it can't be devoured by Crowe's nasally singing voice. The actor lights up the speak-singing but flatly mumbles "Stars" — another rushed number. Maybe I can't shake memories of Philip Quast, but Javert's songs demand a soldier's ferocity and the gleam from a twitching eye that comes with years of obsession. Crowe looks like he just showed up for work.

Hooper and screenwriter William Nicholson take necessary liberties with the fragmented stretch of "Éponine's Errand," "ABC Cafe/ Red and Black," "In My Life," "A Heart Full of Love," "The Attack on Rue Plumet," and "On My Own." Let's face it: the show doesn't handle it smoothly either, Cosette and Marius only crossing paths for the first time in this chance meeting of Valjean, the Thénardiers, Éponine, and Javert. If the movie suffers from weaving all of these moments into one is that it feels as claustrophobic as in a theater. With a rotating stage with sets in motion, we end up traveling more in the stage version than in the movie — a mind-blogging feat.

What really works throughout all the confusion is Eddie Redmayne's Marius, Aaron Tevit's Enjolras, Daniel Huttlestone's Gavroche, and the students of the revolution. Truth: Marius never entirely works for me as a character in the stage productions, reduced to a heartthrob who dabbles in political mumbo jumbo in order to be put into the thick of danger when the time is right. Redmaybe brings him to life. He doesn't sound like a formal singer and it allows him to avoid placation by the material. He's a real person! He bonds with his buddies in the bar and it creates a warm atmosphere like real friendships do. And even though Cosette is still just arm candy in the film version of Les Misérables (and extra vibrato-y in the hands of Amanda Seyfried), Marius feels like a man who struggles with his rebellious agenda and love at first sight. "A Heart Full of Love" really plays.

I know Les Mis fans love them some Éponine, another latter half character that never amounts to more than a hamfisted emotional pawn. Samantha Barks does not help this matter in the big screen translation — a beautiful voice isn't the only requirement for Les Misérables. She packs one, coy and playful with Marius and cutting loose in her big number "On My Own." Sadly, she's still in stage mode and her style doesn't translate to the intentionally rusty tactics of on-set singing. It's too good, she's too bright. The production cranked up the rain on all of her numbers, and it feels like a tactic to mask her over-the-top crying.

The weirdest movie moment of 2012: Jackman's Valjean running to Seyfried's Cosette's aid, bare chest open and exuding sexual tension. The moment creeped me out so much, "One Day More" is a bit of a fuzzy memory. Okay, maybe the awkward scene wasn't that distracting, but Les Misérables' Act I finale is a wildly choppy experience, as loud as the stage version minus the unity. The movie had the impossible task of mimicking the play and the cross-cutting style doesn't bellow in the same way as a full ensemble number.

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