This is one post I have to put on my flame-retardant suit! Even though I’ve heard the musicals, I’ve never seen the stage versions nor had an inclination to – and it’s only because apart from the odd well-known and catchy number here and there from well-known musicals, I dislike them in general. I find the music too much in-your-face with little of the subtleties, whether in the lyrics or the musical textures, that I can easily find in classical operas.
Still, whenever the first reviews of Tom Hooper’s Les Misérables are all putting in bets for the filmed musical to sweep this coming year’s academy awards, I decided to give it a go over the long holiday weekend, out of curiosity if nothing else.
2.5 hours later after the experience, my opinion of musicals remain unchanged: Ling loved it, but I disliked it. To be fair, the film’s visuals were suitably epic. The slums of 19th century Paris are re-created beautifully; even the near-end scene taking place in the sewers looked so real it made Ling cringe and feel real bad for actors who had to wallow in it (I had to remind her it was all made-believe). That a good portion of visuals were computer-generated was obvious too, though I assumed that stylization was intentional. And Sacha Baron Cohen’s turn as the scheming and greedy Thénardier brings to mind the years I enjoyed his performance as Ali G.
But then again, apart from Anne Hathaway (Fantine) and maybe Hugh Jackman (Valjean) at a couple of spots, I thought the rest of the main cast’s singing just awful to my ears. Amanda Seyfried’s (Cosette) voice was too lightweight, and Russell Crowe (Javert) sounded like he was straining at every near high note. And the director seemed to have an obsession with camera close-ups, not to mention weird camera angles. At nearly every solo number, you’ll find the camera literally in the actor’s face, with foreheads and necks frequently cropped off in the frame. When I have to purchase the inevitable Blu-ray for Ling later, I guess I could occupy myself counting the number of nostril hairs Crowe has in all those close-ups. The film felt like a relentless assault on my senses – might had been all that continuous non-stop singing – that I switched off and was struggling to stay awake. It got so bad that I switched on my iPad and fiddling with it, and in the darkness of the theater annoyed Ling who got distracted even by the tablet’s dimmed display LOL.
Funnily, just prior to the film, I’d dug out an old DVD I had of a 1998 film adaption of the same book the musical is based on and gave it another watch. The film starred an A list cast: two of the best male dramatic actors Liam Neeson as Valjean and Geoffrey Rush as Javert, alongside Uma Thurman and Claire Danes as Fantine and Cosette respectively. The film doesn’t follow the book as closely as the musical might nor is it as large-scale as the filmed-musical with its lower production budget. But I found Neeson’s transformation from convict to a benevolent and forgiving man a lot more believable than Jackman’s performance. Best of all and the highlight in the older film for me is Rush’s single-minded Valjean. Unlike the musical, we don’t get to hear the character sing out his thoughts and can only rely on the actor’s spoken dialog and his expressions, and Rush does not disappoint. Even Ling remarked that she thought Rush was a better Javert compared to Crowe.
In all; if you’ve enjoy the musical, I imagine you’d like the new 2012 adaptation. If the music holds nothing for you, go for the 1998 film as I did.:)