I have never been a fan of Les Miz on stage.* It's bombastic, overblown, and repetitive. I originally had no desire to see the movie when it came out, even though I generally go see every movie musical that arrives on the big screen -- as much to provide support for the genre as anything else. I also resented how the writing team had softened and sentimentalized Victor Hugo's original ending, making the plea for forgiveness from Marius and Cosette empty and nonsensical.**
The trailer -- specifically, Anne Hathaway's despairing, broken version of "I Dreamed a Dream," normally one of the biggest offenders in the bombast department -- changed that. I was intrigued: besides, it had Hugh Jackman as Jean Valjean, and Russell Crowe as Javert. (A very big question for me: could Crowe sing Broadway? It's not like this was a TOFOG gig.)
The verdict: I loved it.
As been reported, Tom Hooper had all his singers sing live when filming. This eliminated that awkward canned feeling that can occur sometimes even in the best movie musicals (even Singin' in the Rain, where the dancing overshadows the singing). The music closely matched the emotions displayed by the actors, and allowed the actors to be, where necessary, understated -- okay, more understated than the original. Had this technique (along with casting changes) been used with Rent, it could have been something memorable, instead of the somewhat tame mess it ended up being. It makes me want to scream.
The acting of the cast was stellar. The singing of the cast was... mixed.
Jackman, Hathaway, and Samantha Banks, a incomparable Eponine, were terrific, as was Aaron Tviet, who played the doomed leader of the revolutionaries. All of those are established stage actors and singers, either on Broadway or in the West End. Then there were the actors without Broadway musical experience.
Eddie Redmayne? Wonderful. Amanda Seyfried? pretty, but tremulous and a bit weak. Russell Crowe? Hmm.
I felt Crowe's voice was too rough, and that his voice, suited for rock, was too ragged for Broadway. I thought his singing sounded forced. The Red-Headed Menace, on the other hand, felt that the gravelly voice fitted the character of Javert.
There was so much else: the cinematography (it was a visually stunning movie), the set design, the crowd scenes... the child actors, who were so much better than child actors usually are, especially the urchin Gavroche. And Colm Wilkinson, who was the original Jean Valjean over a quarter of a century ago, played the bishop who redeems Valjean.
I cried numerous times -- and I heard the people around me sniffing as well. And not only at big denouements, but at little moments as well, such as when Javert surveys the bodies of the revolutionaries laid out reverently and lovingly and ... is visibly moved by one of them. It was a moment which humanized what otherwise is a stern and inflexible character. (In fact, Crowe's performance as Javert, issues about his singing aside, was lovely and nuanced. Crowe can put more depth into a stoic glare than many actors can into much more expansive gestures.)
I really hope I can have a chance to see this again. I have a hunch I'll like it just as much -- or maybe even more -- the second time.
*Okay, so I have never seen it in a theater -- I have seen it performed on television, and I used to have the entire soundtrack. I got rid of all but a handful of songs because, as I said, I found them repetitive to the point of annoyance. I do think it is intrinsically possible to determine whether you like a work on the basis of a soundtrack -- for all the musicals where I heard (and usually owned) the soundtrack first (e.g. Rent, The Producers, Company, most recently The Book of Mormon), when I did see the work my opinion matched that I formed from the soundtrack.
**In Hugo's book the pair (well, Marius, really) do have something to feel badly about. It's not the worst crime of this sort -- that dubious distinction belongs to the Disney version of The Little Mermaid -- but it is bad nonetheless.