I just saw this musical back in July, so I'll just borrow my plot summary from that journal entry instead of writing it anew:
After nineteen years in prison, Jean Valjean is released on parole. His desire to live a normal life is hampered by his status as a former prisoner; everywhere he goes he is shunned. When a kindly bishop provides him with food and shelter, Valjean repays him by stealing some silver dishes. He is arrested again, but the bishop saves him once more by claiming he gave those items to Valjean as a gift. After the police leave, the man of God implores Valjean to live an honest life, and the former convict agrees. Fast forward several years, and Valjean is the wealthy owner of a factory and mayor of a town. But his prosperity is always threatened by his past, for after his encounter with the bishop Valjean destroyed his identification papers and as a result he is in violation of his parole. No matter how much time passes, the policeman Javert is searching for him. In his factory, there is a woman named Fantine. When Valjean fails to intervene in a fight, she is fired and forced into prostitution. Valjean repents of his inaction when he learns that Fantine is dying, and promises to care for her daughter. He fetches the girl, named Cosette, and for many years they are happy together. But little girls eventually grow up, and when Cosette meets a young man named Marius in the streets of Paris, it is love at first sight. With war breaking out on the streets of Paris and Javert hot on the heels of Valjean, will anyone in this musical find happiness? (Hint: It's called Les Misérables, what do you think is going to happen?)
I'm a sucker for musicals, as you know. The more bombastic and dramatic, the better. Les Mis certainly is both. The music is excellent and the songs stick in your mind for days. It's even more interesting when you know that the singers actually sang the songs in these scenes, rather than lip-syncing to a prerecorded track, as is the norm for musical movies. This has an interesting result – the songs don't sound as good as a studio recording, but the actors can get a lot more emotion into the words. For example, think of Anne Hathaway's “I Dreamed a Dream” - it's not a lovely recording of the song. But more than any other rendition I've heard, she captures the anger and frustration that Fantine feels about her life and how far she's fallen.
I wish that I could excuse all the flaws in the singing as an exchange for emotional depth and vitality, but alas, it doesn't work like that. Some of the roles in this film were frankly miscast, and the biggest one of all was Russell Crowe as Javert. I'm sorry, but that was dreadful. His voice was so flat, his songs so dead on arrival... I don't know enough about music to know why he sounded so wrong. If I had to guess, he's singing a pitch he isn't used to? Or maybe he just lacks the vocal strength? But goodness, he butchered “Stars” so badly. I don't mean to pick on him, because he wasn't the only vocal misfire. Amanda Seyfried's Cosette was weak and whiny – so hard to listen to. She made me cringe again and again with her high-pitched off-notes. But Cosette's always pretty boring anyway, a symbol rather than a fully realized woman, so no matter how much she sucks you can forget it pretty quickly. Javert is the big bad cloud raining on Valjean's parade – he needs to be looming and threatening. I mean, I think I understand where the director was going with this choice. He wanted to capture the steady, plodding persistence of Javert's pursuit of Valjean, always dogging at the ex-convict's heels. But it just didn't work.
Hugh Jackman was pretty good. Man, he looked haggard in that opening scene. That can't have been just makeup to make him appear so worn out and downtrodden. Come to think of it, Anne Hathaway looked really run down too as Cosette. What do these actors do to themselves to capture that? It can't be healthy. I mean, I'm all about dedication to a role but when it's obvious that these actors are dropping substantial amounts of weight it makes me wonder if it's worth it.
I'm on the fence about Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carer as the Thénardiers. Personally, I didn't like the way they played the characters. I get that those two are the comedic relief, but these guys were too clownish by far. But they sang their roles well enough – it just felt like their scenes were detours into a completely different movie.
Samantha Barks, Eddie Redmayne, Aaron Tveit, and the other secondary characters – no complaints. They were all great.
Now that I've seen the musical twice – once on stage and this movie – I feel like I really, really ought to read the book.