Les Misérables: musical offers a close-up look at suffering; The translation to film both enhances and distracts from the stage show’s original impact

by Sara Lombardi
As one of the most anticipated movies of 2012, the hype leading up to the opening of Les Misérables was deafening. With a star-studded cast that includes Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe and Anne Hathaway, it was hard to imagine the movie-musical would be anything less than great. While some aspects of the film are fantastic, others lack the impact of a live production.
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Les Mis, based on a 19th-century French novel by Victor Hugo, was adapted into a stage musical in 1980.  It tells the story of fugitive Jean Valjean (Jackman), who comes across the troubled Fantine (Hathaway), and upon her death he promises to take care of her child Cosette (Amanda Seyfried). He and Cosette hide away as the world around them is torn apart by poverty and revolution.
One of the most fascinating aspects of this movie compared to other movie-musicals is that director Tom Hooper, who won the Academy Award for The King’s Speech in 2010, decided to have the actors sing live on camera instead of recording the music before filming, the standard for almost all movie-musicals.
“What it offers you is the ability to be in the moment,” said Matthew Capodicasa ‘05, who starred as Javert in the high school’s own production of Les Mis and now serves as Repertory Theatre director.
“It leant the songs a kind of human quality, which, considering the grandiosity of the score, is very much a positive thing,” said Capodicasa about the movie’s unique approach.
The actors were given live piano accompaniment through an earpiece, with full orchestra added in post-production. This allowed the actors more freedom to take risks and act the scenes as if they were performing on stage, without the limitations of having to follow pre-recorded tracks.
“It made the emotion so much more audible than other movie musicals where they lip sync,” said sophomore Maya Mitterhoff. “Especially by those actors who were more often actors than singers, I was very impressed.”
However, there are drawbacks to this option as well. Hooper needed a cast of actors who could act and sing well enough live, which can be hard to find, especially with a score as difficult and iconic as that of Les Mis.
For the most part, the cast rises to the occasion. Critical acclaim has already been awarded to Hathaway, and rightly so, for her emotional rendition of “I Dreamed a Dream.” She is the highlight of the movie, despite appearing for a mere 40 minutes.
Another performance that stands out is Eddie Redmayne as Marius, Cosette’s love interest and leader of a band of rebels. It was difficult to block out the muffled sobs heard in the theater as he sang “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables,” lamenting the death of his friends.
One performance that has been criticized is Crowe’s portrayal of Valjean’s nemesis, Inspector Javert. He lacks intensity and is clearly the weakest singer in this talented cast, many of  whom have Broadway experience.
Another problem is the decision to film entire songs in lingering close-ups of the actor singing.  Rather than intensifying the emotional effect, the close-ups used magnify the actors’ complexion and dental features to a distracting degree.
Overall, though, the film adaptation of Les Mis was definitely a success, and should introduce a new generation of viewers to the power and beauty of Victor Hugo’s story and Claude-Michel Schönberg’s iconic score.