This is a movie I’ve waited a quarter of a century to see. I saw it three times when it opened in Boston, from the second balcony. Since then the music has acquired layers of meaning for me. The cat songs I improvised for Johann. The housewarming song I wrote for Debbie Ohi the day before she moved in, to the tune of “One Day More.” While hearing “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables” I was in a castle in Germany for the moment, hearing a different set of words, mourning a different person.
Inevitably it wasn’t everything I’d hoped for, but it was 80 to 90 percent.
At first I had trouble getting used to the close perspective. Aside from my second-balcony experience, the musical is a flyover of a large and complex novel with large amounts of historical background; characters literally stepped from one scene into another on a turntable stage. Seeing the characters so close seemed wrong, and at times the movie tried for an excessive level of realism (e.g., the “galleys” in the opening scene). It particularly bothered me that some of the sung lines were turned into speech. Either this decreased as the movie continued or I got used to it.
The American version of the musical was left almost entirely intact. (Note for Joey Shoji: “Do You Hear the People Sing?” is included.) I don’t recall the convent scene; if it was added for the movie, it was a good touch, improving the continuity and keeping a bit of an important part of the book. (The US and UK versions had some significant differences, and the French one was very different, so bits may have come from any of them.) One change that seriously annoyed me was Javert’s drawing a sword on Jean Valjean at Fantine’s deathbed; I was overdosed on swordplay from The Hobbit and many other movies, and it meant that Valjean had to flee instead of overpowering Javert. In that scene, the amount of overlapping between Valjean’s and Javert’s words was greatly decreased, making them easier to understand but reducing the musical tension.
Hugh Jackman did an excellent job of holding the movie together as Jean Valjean. I very much liked Aaron Tveit as Enjolras and Samantha Barks as Éponine. Daniel Huttlestone was great as Gavroche, and it’ll be interesting to see what happens when the pup grows up. According to IMDB, this is his first movie, but he has some stage background. Russell Crowe, who played Javert, provided fine singing but wooden acting. There was a nice bit by a French officer who looked as if he really hoped for a peaceful resolution at the barricade before ordering his forces to fire.
Setting up the Thénardiers as comedy relief in the musical never went well with me; they’re deeply nasty characters in the novel. Sacha Baron Cohen makes things even worse in the movie by trying to play Johnny Depp. Anne Hathaway’s Fantine left me cold, though I can’t really say why.
I sniffled a lot. It wasn’t the perfect realization of what I would have liked to see, but it was close.