We understand that Les Misérables has been interpreted for the silver screen and television ten times including the 1934 French film version considered by many as one of the triumphs of French filmmaking. The 1935 production starring iconic actors Fredric March as Jean Valjean and Charles Laughton who played Javert. While in 1952 director Lewis Milestone (All Quiet on the Western Front) missed the mark, it still retains “classic status” because of Michael Rennie's “Christ like” Valjean and Robert Newton's overzealous Javert. Most recently, in 1998, it was Liam Neeson battling Geoffrey Rush’s Javert, with Uma Thurman as Fantine and Claire Danes as Cosette. But, none of them sang. The previous versions were all pure drama (no singing) and most did not accurately follow the Victor Hugo storyline (exception 1934) with the 1998 version reducing the roles and influence of many of the key characters. I hesitated though ultimately liked 1998 but not with the same visceral passion I attach to the Cameron Mackintosh musical productions. My indoctrination to and preference for the musical made the 1998 movie just another afternoon entertainment joust with a twist.
So that opinion is now coupled with thousands more expressed in the various Les Mis reviews, forums and threads from around the world. Predictably, everybody has an opinion though generally at the expense of one interpretation over another and in this case the screen adaptation over the stage version. The visceral, obsessive allegiance (including primo vulgarities) directed to one character or version of Les Mis over another is astonishing and inappropriate. You’d think we were talking about gun control or the US debt ceiling…
We and a few others maintain we are going about this all wrong. Many Les Mis fans are treating the two versions as one and the same and – they are not. It’s apples and oranges and we need to give both the credit for their interpretation and the differences in these two mediums. Let’s take a look at the 2012 movie musical and then readdress this observation.
The recently released (Christmas Day 2012) Les Misérables musical for the big screen has been anticipated for some time given the huge success of the stage productions, aye, since 1985. Interestingly, the musical was originally panned by the critics, but not by the public who flocked to see the original production at the Barbican Centre in London, England. As the original and my favorite Jean Valjean, Colm Wilkinson opined, “the people voted with their feet…” Most of the critics have come around since then… From that point Les Mis Fans and critics alike have embraced their favorite versions and actors literally from around the world.
There are some suspect doubters including movie critic Todd McCarthy of The Hollywood Reporter who confusingly, offers that this musical has too much music (?) seemingly validating his layoff from Variety. While McCarthy probably also thinks that “water is too wet” he did have some nice things to say but surgically dissected the film, essentially condemning the millions of Les Mis fans prophetically noting that their commitment to the cause, “might be all that is required.” From his bully pulpit he’s right and everybody else is wrong. We guess that McCarthy is writing for the minority - those few - those discriminating erudite few that know the difference… He makes me happy to the part of the 49%...
In all fairness we need note that some (not all) movie critics not unlike the original stage production have taken exception with the movie and specifically with Director Tom Hooper. Unlike some, we like the energy of his innovative camera work and note that the producers gave Hooper the control and authority to essentially interpret the stage version as he saw fit… and he did. I will not criticize what is artistic license and respect Hooper all the more for the final product. We think that some of the criticism directed at Hooper is pure slop. And how about the Cleveland, Ohio critic that, “There is not enough great drama to drive the story and not enough great songs to pick up the dull bits.” Yes, he really said that… “not enough drama”! We understand that the movie is breaking records in that great city.
So, the movie musical has been anything but panned by the public, setting box office and attendance records since its release. The People continue to vote with their feet. This last week the movie garnered the Golden Globe for Best Musical or Comedy, Best Actor (Hugh Jackman) and Best Supporting Actress (Anne Hathaway). Les Misérables received nine British Academy of Film & Television Arts (BFATA) nominations for Best Film, Best British Film, Leading Actor (Hugh Jackman), Supporting Actress (Anne Hathaway), Cinematography, Production Design, Costume Design, Sound, Sound Mixing and Make Up & Hair. The movie received eight American Academy Award nominations including nods for Best Picture, Actor (Hugh Jackman), Supporting Actress (Anne Hathaway), Production Design, Costumes, Makeup and Hairstyling, Original Song and Sound Mixing. We propose they deserved more recognition and nominations… though these nods by themselves appear a real stick in the eye to those cynical and nonsensical critics and reviewers who just don’t get it… Having said that all are entitled to their opinion.
Les Mis grossed over $100M in just thirteen days – a new record for North American musicals. Les Mis is closing in on $100M outside North America too and has already surpassed the $200M mark worldwide. The movie shattered opening day UK box office records grossing an estimated $3.7M for Friday last alone. The trend is expected to continue as the film opened in other parts of the world this last week indeed, in many venues where the stage version has played successfully. Number crunchers note that Les Mis by its very presence has elevated the sales of other competing films. Nice…
Cameron Mackintosh shows his creative genius in yet another medium with some common threads to his stage productions. The film is based on the original stage musical of the same name by Alain Boublil and Jean-Marc Natel (lyrics), Claude-Michel Schönberg (music) with subsequent English-language libretto by Herbert Kretzmer. Scripting for the movie is credited to William Nicholson (Gladiator and Elizabeth: The Golden Age, among others) and Boublil, Schönberg and Kretzmer. Tom Hooper (Prime Suspect, John Adams, Elizabeth I & The King’s Speech, among others) demonstrated, once again his superb directorial talents. Hey, let’s give Victor Hugo some nods here…
We think it brilliant (and a nice touch) that Mackintosh gave an aging (too senior for Valjean) Colm Wilkinson the role of the benevolent Bishop of Digne who appropriately gives direction to Valjean’s life, literally setting him on the path of redemption by “buying Valjean’s soul for God.” Indeed, when I saw Wilkinson make his appearance as the Bishop it was for me (and should be for all Les Mis followers) yet another Ah-Ha and meaningful heart-warming moment… for Colm Wilkinson it was closure and the realization that he had, “come full circle.”
Mackintosh also included Frances Ruffelle who created the role of Éponine in the original London cast and then won a Tony Award for playing Éponine on Broadway. In the movie she still shines in a two minute scene per Cameron Mackintosh as, “the most famous Whore” (Whore No. 1) singing Lovely Ladies. There are appropriately other participants from previous productions of Les Mis. They give the movie even more depth and character…
One of the most distinguishing features of the production was that all the vocals were performed live – no lip-synch or mime here. With the spectacular and emotional (aye, intimate) close-ups the viewer knows the cast is singing just for them. This aspect the movie allows the actors to have, “emotional control over their songs.” The spontaneity and all the energy the actors can muster with their interpretations are channeled into that moment allowing an exponentially more powerful scene. The “live” aspect of the movie performances share with the stage production though that even showcases their differences and beg the attention we referenced earlier (later).
When Hathaway as Fantine after selling teeth and her hair (literally chopped off onscreen) and reduced to prostitution sings her lament, I Dreamed a Dream, with a teary hysteria - an emotion never before experienced on screen or stage - the audience plunges with her into that abyss – “that Hell she was living”. It was extraordinary acting and exceptional singing that allowed me for the first time to experience Fantine’s real despair… Hathaway has a singing background and wonderfully, it was her Mother Kate that provided the inspiration as she played Fantine in the first U.S. tour of Les Misérables. Aye…
Then there was Eddie Redmayne the Tony Award winning, Eton (Prince William’s classmate) & Trinity educated, English actor who played/performed, no lived the coveted role of Marius—the courageous young revolutionary survivor of the 1832 June Rebellion in Paris who falls for Cosette (Amanda Seyfried), the adopted daughter of Jean Valjean. Redmayne still in his youth at almost 31 and already an accomplished actor hadn’t sung in any role since he played Urchin No. 30 (at “11 or 12”) in Cameron Mackintosh's Oliver. Redmayne was a soloist in the Eton College Choir so his “preppy pipes” were just waiting to be truly tested and polished. His performance was remarkable, perhaps the best Marius ever – or will be… but that’s just me.
Redmayne’s Empty Chairs at Empty Tables (ECAET) wasn’t just sung, it was emoted and you lived his pain at the loss of his Friends. As one contributor to a Les Mis forum offered of Redmayne’s ECAET, “His despair was just palpable.” For me this was the best interpretation not only of this song but of Marius and why no Oscar nomination was forthcoming is absolutely criminal…
What we like about the rough-hewn, wide-eyed, freckle faced Redmayne is that despite his early successes he remains approachable - one of us - seemingly rejecting super celebrity status which he probably deserves. That may be one of the greatest gifts he offers to us - his equality and fraternity.
There were other stellar performers to include 22 year old Samantha Bark (Isle of Man/Sam) as Eponine who in her first movie role recreated and adapted her stage character for the screen. With lesser performances by Hathaway and Jackman, Bark could have completely stolen the show. As it is Bark is the Les Mis breakout star who performed like a veteran with her passionate On My Own and my favorite, her goodbye, A Little Fall of Rain. We first saw Samantha in the Les Mis 25th Anniversary concert at the O2 and thought her superb. Now everybody will know her.
And then when you take stock of these and other superb performances you at once realize that all this pales compared to the performance by Hugh Jackman. No, he can’t sing like Colm Wilkinson but neither can Wilkinson act like Jackman. This is the perfect example of those apples and oranges referenced earlier. Jackman’s demeanor, leadership and dedication to his character inspired others, especially the junior members of the cast and mentor Russell Crowe. Is it fair to ponder that Jackman while great technically with his Bring Him Home, still can’t carry Colm Wilkinson’s bags? Probably not…
Jackman, Wilkinson and, yes, Wilkinson wanna-be - the absolutely brilliant Alfie Boe - all bring their own strengths to the game. Boe is neither Jackman nor Wilkinson with the latter two not really on the same page either. Both are brilliant in their own venues though Jackman because of the magic of film allowed this writer to experience moments I never felt with any stage production.
And that’s OK. That doesn’t demean or lessen any of the stage productions, rather draws attention to their differences. The most significant difference between stage and screen is communication – the method by which a message and meaning is expressed and conveyed. Brian Timoney the Scottish born and raised actor since moved to London now converted to a highly regarded method acting coach nails it for me with his clarification of the differences.
“The stage play relies strongly on language and verbal delivery. First, that means that the stage actor needs a voice that can be heard in a large auditorium. Second, in stage work the voice is central to expressiveness and communicating emotion. Third, timing of delivery, and using the voice to create and sustain dramatic tension are crucial, since they can't be tweaked in the editing suite.
Movies create meaning very differently. Montage - essentially the juxtapositioning of shots - is central. A character has received terrible news. Film can convey his or her reaction in several ways, suitably tuned to the narrative: by cutting to a stormy sky; a flashback to a car crash; a close-up of a dropped phone dangling. In a play, it is voice and physical movement that you must rely on for conveying emotion.
Gesture, movement and physicality are also vital on stage. Whereas tiny gestures can be magnified in close-up film shots, as a stage actor you will use your body very differently. You will need to communicate a physical energy and develop a 'stage presence'. The film close-up permits subtleties of facial expression and movement that don't work on the stage.”
So, any stage performer may find himself quite literally performing (key word) at center stage addressing an audience at 180 degrees building his character during the course of the play, feeding emotionally from audience reaction, his stage cohorts and whether he got up on the right side of the bed that morning. The stage actor has to present a bigger than life persona to convey his/her message. A word once spoken or sung is immediate history, cannot be taken back and will probably be on You Tube within minutes. There is tomorrow, but that is a different snapshot – not the same time and place.
With film accomplished actors have a much more difficult charge where mostly without continuity they are required to capture the essence of their character and the attendant emotion in as true and, yes, believable a manner as possible, however subtle or over the top. They literally have to live in that one moment adding creative detail as they are so motivated. How many (already lean) stage Jean Valjeans lost thirty pounds literally starving themselves to recreate the grim and desperate Prisoner 24601? Only one… How many Jean Valjeans gained thirty pounds to play M'sieur Mayor? Only one… How many (already lean) stage Fantines lost twenty-five pounds to recreate the character of an impoverished prostitute dying of tuberculosis? Only one… I could go on…
Generally stage sets and props are just that, a facsimile of the real scene perhaps even supported by video presentations such as in the latest stage production of Les Mis that uses pen and ink drawings by Victor Hugo. It is a representation of a venue – not the real thing - that requires the audience to use their imagination and the actors to pull off that imagery.
Filming on set or location offers more realism and we note that Les Mis was filmed at Pinewood Studios, on location in France and also at Her Majesty’s Naval Base in Portsmouth, the Historic Chatham Dockyard, the Old Royal Naval College in Greenwich, Winchester College and Winchester Cathedral and at other spectacular locations in England. No on-stage set could ever duplicate these magnificent venues… nor should they try… In the case of the stage and screen versions of Les Mis – they stimulate the imagination and have both excelled and demonstrated the skills of all involved.
So, when you go to see Les Misérables the movie (and we recommend that you do), don’t expect the stage production. What you can anticipate is the same story line and performances that mirror and always complement the London and New York stage performances. If you are Human, if you care about the Spirit of Man, of Descent and ultimate Redemption then bring your Kleenex. Also be prepared to give this movie its due. After my first viewing of the film and as the film ended, applause started and even some cheers all coming to a crescendo before a filled theater mostly stood up in appreciation. People didn’t want to leave holding on to the energy and passion of their experience standing in silence until the credits finished and light was slowly restored to the theater.
Victor Hugo once stated, “There is one spectacle grander than the sea, that is the sky; there is one spectacle grander than the sky, that is the interior of the soul.” And that has been bared for us thanks to the grand author of Les Misérables.
A most pragmatic Friend found her other self today when after seeing the movie, texted, “Les Mis… Magnificent… Wonderful… I’m still crying. Peace.”