(If you don’t know the story of “Les Miserables,” and you don’t like spoilers, read no further.)
“Les Miserables” was my first West End theatre experience more than 22 years ago. Since then, I have seen it on stage five times, and watched and listened to the 10th and the 25th Anniversary Concerts endlessly.
I was excited to see Russell Crowe cast as Javert, the obsessive policeman who hounds Jean ValJean, though I knew filling the shoes of actors like Philip Quast, Roger Allam, and Norm Lewis wouldn’t be easy. But in December 2012, he created a fallible and human Javert.
Russell Crowe’s greatest talent lies in bringing a sense of intimacy to a larger-than-life character. Javert is writ large on stage, but Crowe pulls the viewer close. During the confrontation between Javert and ValJean over the body of Fantine, his deeper voice, perfect uniform and angry eyes are the ideal contrast to the foppishly-dressed high-voiced Val Jean. You hear the physical effort of the duel in his voice and see the mania in his eyes as he sings, “I am from the gutter too.”
Stage actors perform “Stars” center stage in full costume. Back-lighting makes the actor look even larger and more menacing. Javert does not move from his spotlight. But Russell sings in close-up, pacing the sharp edge of a Paris roof line in mirror-shined shoes, the determination in his eyes shocking for someone who has only seen Javert from a distance. As he is dressed in his uniform without hat and great coat, the menace has been replaced by obsession.
After the fall of the barricade, he deliberately steps through a vivid pool of blood and walks among the bodies, stooping beside the urchin Gavroche, his face etched in sorrow. When he allows ValJean to pass, carrying an unconscious Marius, the pain and doubt carry him directly to the bridge. In his performance of Javert’s suicide, the lyrics finally make sense of the action, as the anger, doubt and despair play across his face in rapid succession.
Translating a much-loved stage production to a film can be hazardous. Sometimes sung dialogue seems awkward on film. The barricade is incredibly detailed, but it doesn’t have the same impact that it has on stage. Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter were woefully miscast as the Thenardiers, chewing scenery a bit too vigorously. The fall of Fantine into prostitution was so nightmarish that it detracted from Ann Hathaway’s performance.
Still, for an obsessive fan of Les Mis, the film is magnificent. Samantha Bark’s performance of “On My Own” is made all the more poignant as she walks in the rain, surrounded by silent buildings. Several actors who have played prominent roles in the show around the world are featured in singing roles. Casting the original Jean Val Jean, Colm Wilkinson, as the Bishop of Digne, closes a loop; he is magnificent in the brief but pivotal role of the man who redeems ValJean. Eddie Redmayne surprises me with his ability to sing. Hugh Jackman and Amanda Seyfried are skilled stage actors with beautiful voices who handle intimate scenes beautifully. “One Day More” and “Do You Hear the People Sing” translate to epic proportions when the actors are not limited to a stage footprint.
Finally, seeing Russell Crowe in a beautifully-tailored uniform and tri corn, riding through the streets on horseback, just made me happy.