It was the best of times, it was …

What do you do if you’re in charge of a franchise loved by tens of millions of people around the world and you’re about to bring it to the silver screen once again after a long absence?

You create a script of wooden dialog, direct actors to horrifically wooden performances, and create perhaps the most (validly) maligned CGI character in history, of course.

But let’s talk about Les Misérables, instead. (I know, two Les Mis posts in a row. As the saying goes, write what you know.)

Even people not paying attention (and that’s most of you) know I’m a Les Mis geek. I’ve seen the play a half-dozen times, own all five soundtracks, including the original French version, and have read the book (unabridged only, please) at least four times. I was thus one of the ones for whom this film was highly anticipated. Highly anticipated. I was more excited about Les Mis than I was about The Hobbit (for good reason, it turns out).

So, was it awesome? Or awful?

What if I said “Yes.”?

For those who love the musical, and are used to stage-trained voices, most of the ones in the movie … aren’t. Although Hugh Jackman is (stage-trained), he was disappointing, nonetheless. He may be a Tony-award winning actor, but let’s hope he won it for his dancing, because his singing was often cringe-inducing. It was nasally enough that I kept expecting to look up and find him holding his nose. I wanted to hold mine, too.

Russell Crowe wasn’t quite as bad a choice as Nick Jonas for Marius in the 25th Anniversary concert, but it was close. He was, if possible, more nasal than Jackman, with none of his range. His version of “Stars” had you hoping one of them would fall out the sky and take him out, putting us both out of our misery.

So, the two biggest parts in the movie, and they’re both mediocre of voice at best. Ditto for the bishop — Hooper gave a crumb to one of the original stage Valjeans by handing the part to Colm Wilkinson, but Wilkinson’s voice was gone fifteen years ago.There’s no way to recover from all that, is there?

Actually, there is. You just have to remember that this is a movie, not a play.

Conventional wisdom says that the movie never lives up to the book. And if you’re a book lover who wants every word translated to the screen, the conventional wisdom is going to be true. But, if you’re a book lover who loves movies and recognizes they are two different mediums, it is possible to love both, even if they don’t bear much resemblance to each other (see Lord of the Rings, the Bourne trilogy, etc.)

The same is true here. It’s a movie — acting takes precedence over singing, just as singing takes precedence over acting in the musical (I’ve seen some pretty bad acting performances on stage over the years). But, paradoxically perhaps, it actually helps if you’ve read the book (again, unabridged only, please). The movie injects several elements from the book that the stage has no room for, and it makes the story that is presented that much more compelling.

From a movie perspective, the acting is excellent across the board. I thought every one of the actors and actresses nail their parts, and the movie script flows in a way that is impossible to do on stage. Jackman is terrific as Valjean, showing all of the anger, fear, joy, and sorrow that Hugo wrote into him. Crowe acting credentials are not in question, and they at times (almost) make up for his lack of vocal prowess.

Ann Hathaway is spectacular, both on screen and in voice. I expect her to walk away with the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress this year, and it will be richly deserved. She also puts the two top-billed actors to shame with her singing — much has already been written, and praised, about her “I Dreamed a Dream”, but she is terrific throughout (her duet with Valjean as he is about to die brought goosebumps). If Jackman and Crowe were a double and a single, respectively, she’s a 500-foot home run.

The rest of the supporting cast are all excellent. Eddie Redmayne and Aaron Tvelt, as Marius and Enjolras, respectively, were both superb, and Samantha Barks showed she can act as well as she can sing (she has played Eponine on the London stage as well as at the 25th anniversary concert).

And the movie itself, ahh, the movie is phenomenal. What has been visualized in our heads for so many years was on-screen, and on-screen almost exactly as we have wished for. The degradation of the prostituted Lovely Ladies, the despair of the poor At the End of the Day, the building of the barricade by various pieces of furniture and other detritus thrown out of windows — Hooper’s staging is an astounding accomplishment. Anything that can keep you from cringing while Cosette sings “Castle On a Cloud” deserves all the praise it can get. So, by all means, don’t buy the soundtrack. By itself, away from the movie, it’s going to be disappointing at best, and awful at worst. (Buy this instead.)

But do see the movie. It tells the story as well as the story is ever going to be told, and as our gap widens between those who have and those who do not, it’s a story that needs telling. And watching.

So long as there shall exist, by reason of law and custom, a social condemnation, which, in the face of civilisation, artificially creates hells on earth, and complicates a destiny that is divine, with human fatality; so long as the three problems of the age–the degradation of man by poverty, the ruin of woman by starvation, and the dwarfing of childhood by physical and spiritual night–are not yet solved; as long as, in certain regions, social asphyxia shall be possible; in other words, and from a yet more extended point of view, so long as ignorance and misery remain on earth, books like this cannot be useless.

Victor Hugo

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