As year-end approaches I am happy to say I have seen all the December-release movies I was excited about seeing; both of them.
On Christmas Day we saw The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. I enjoyed it. I hasten to note I am neither a Tolkien cultist nor a Tolkien purist so others may have higher expectations. I read The Hobbit the summer between middle school and high school. I liked it. I bought a copy of The Fellowship of the Ring; the first of the three Lord of The Rings books; shortly afterward. I put it down about half way through. I may finish it some day, and read the two that follow. It’s been 40 years, however, so ‘take the over’ on any target date.
Here, the story felt familiar; as I remembered it. I am sure there must be significant variances between the screenplay and the novel, not least because the book isn’t that long and is being made into three films. Perhaps Peter Jackson has a more epic vision for the story. Perhaps he was inspired by the success of splitting the last Harry Potter book into two films and wanted to engage in a little one-upmanship. In any event I found the characters engaging and the journey of discovery, and self-discover, our hairy-footed friend undertakes to be as compelling a story as I thought it was when I was 14.
Martin Freeman gives an outstanding performance in the title role. I knew of Mr. Freeman from his portrayal of Dr. Watson in the television series Sherlock. I have since come to understand that he was in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy which I have seen and the original English version of the television series The Office, which I have not. I was pleasantly surprised to see a number of the actors from the LOTR movies in cameo roles in this story which, while not a part of the LOTR series, is nonetheless, a prequel.
The second December-release on my ‘must-see’ list was, of course, Les Miserables. The spirit of full disclosure prompts me to say I may well be a cultist and a purist when looking at this one. I have seen the stage version many times in productions ranging from national tours to high-schools. I have a copy of the Royal Albert Hall concert production and PBS knows they can always count on my contribution every time they show it during pledge week. I’ve listened to the Original Broadway Cast recording countless times. Indeed, I think I could go viral on YouTube if I filmed my ‘behind-the-wheel-on-the-expressway’ version of “One Day More” where I sing all 8 parts. All that notwithstanding, I was committed to seeing this movie with an open mind.
There are many things about the movie that are good and some that are quite wonderful. It is visually stunning. I am reluctant to say it is beautiful because so much of it is dark and dirty as befits the story but it is impressive.
Eddie Redmayne as Marius is outstanding both as an actor and as a singer. I don’t think I have ever heard a more moving version of “Empty Chairs At Empty Tables”. Mr. Redamayne is a familiar face from Tudor-era costume dramas but I did not know he could sing. I have learned he has an impressive resume of stage work as well including an award-winning performance in Edward Albee’s The Goat…or Who Is Sylvia. This has now replaced Daniel Radcliff’s “Equus” as the stage performance by a young English actor I most wish I’d seen.
Samantha Barks, in her film début, is quite good as Eponine. She is a strong singer and a talented actress. It was a pleasant surprise to see Colm Wilkinson in the role of the priest. I briefly hoped he would dub all of Hugh Jackman’s songs since his is the voice in my head singing all of them but it was not to be. I was also glad they expanded the role of Gavroche to give him a little more to do. I always suspected that role was created to give the audience something to watch in front of the curtain while the crew built a barricade behind it. Here he is much more real which yields a greater dramatic payoff later on.
There is always an original song in the movie version of musicals so they have something that will be eligible to be nominated for an Academy Award for Best Song. In this case that song is “Suddenly” which Hugh Jackman sings. Written by the show’s original composers, the song fits into the show stylistically and creates a nice moment between Valjean and the young Cosette which does not exist in the stage production.
It would be unfair to say I was disappointed in the musical performances of the principals. I was, but I don’t think it was their fault. Much of the music in the movie is performed as recitative; talking on pitch and in tempo with the score but not really singing. Conjure the sound of Rex Harrison in “My Fair Lady” in your mind. On one hand it allows for a greater depth of emotion in their performance than might be possible if they were actually singing. Anne Hathaway’s performance of “I Dreamed a Dream” is moving but the emotional power of the music is replaced by the emotional power of her acting. It’s kind of the way someone would make a musical if they don’t like musical theater; or the way one might stage Verdi’s opera “Otello” if you really wanted to be doing Shakespeare’s play.
Russell Crowe looks uncomfortable. I didn’t expect him to be a good singer and he isn’t. Javert is a complex character and the show does not given him much stage time to reveal that. The role is less vocally challenging than others in the show and, given the recitative style, he does a competent job.
Hugh Jackman is quite good. His has a distinctive vocal style and can do more vocally than he is allowed to do in this film. Again, he makes up for the lack of emotional power in the musical performance by upping the ante in the acting. It is effective.
A very big disappointment in the movie for me were Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Cater as the innkeeper and his wife. “Master of the House” is a bawdy, raucous production number. In the stage version it fills a need by giving the audience an emotional break from what is otherwise an almost unrelentingly bleak first act. Here I found it joyless. I should be candid and acknowledge that I have never liked Sacha Baron Cohen in anything and his performance here is more of the same. I like Helena Bonham Carter very much but she is not given enough to do here. Also, she must be getting tired of that ‘look’. If I look just at her costumes, hair and makeup I would be hard pressed to differentiate this character from her roles in “Sweeney Todd”, “Fight Club” and the “Harry Potter” movies.
The last critical point is probably nit-picky. In the stage production, in the final sequence there is a brief trio sung by Valjean, Fantine, and Eponine. The harmony is heartbreakingly beautiful and ensures the tissue will be out before the finale begins. In this case, they eliminated Eponine so, not only have they reduced the harmony from 3-part to 2-part, but they eliminated the strongest of the three singers.
OK; I’ll admit I still needed a tissue more than once. The music is beautiful and powerful. The story is tragic and sweeping and the scale of the production is epic. It’s just that it could have been so much more. I am glad I saw this movie. I won’t be buying the recording. Next time a touring company of a stage version of Les Miserables comes through Harper’s Valley I’m sure I will try to catch it. But I don’t think I’ll need to see the movie again….at least not anytime soon. Maybe I’ll watch it again right after I finish reading the Lord of the Rings.