les mis

I’ll start out by saying I am not a fan of the musical Les Miserables.  I think there are shows with far more complex music, more sophisticated lyrics and far more nuanced characters. Even within the realm of melodrama I can think of musicals that convey grand emotions with more precision, rather than resorting to methodical soliloquies and poetic abstractions. When I heard there was going to be a movie version of Les Mis, I was gripped with a paralyzing fear of sugar-coated, auto-tuned singing and of the inevitable facial expressions of “rapture” bound to accompany such singing, rather than a real emotion specific to the character’s scene and situation. I was afraid, even worse, that audiences would love it – in short, I was afraid of another Glee.

So you can imagine I was taken aback when the performances in Tom Hooper’s Les Miserables came across as not only authentic but also incredibly humble. Some critics have accused the movie of putting too much weight on the acting and not enough on the singing (I’m looking at you, Adam Lambert, and the twitter posts about how they ought to have taken those actors to the studio and “sweetened” their singing). I’m much more inclined to agree with Russell Crowe’s clipped response, that the performances were better off “raw and real.” The effect of live-recording the songs and of not giving them an auto-tune up at the end strips away all the self-conscious, American-Idol glamor and allows us to focus on the time, place, and significance of the song in that moment of the show.

The actors, perhaps spurred on by the challenge of live singing (not to mention live singing a difficult score), seem to approach the songs with the same seriousness. Hugh Jackman, it seems, sings in his authentic voice, without the distractions of stylistic tricks (i.e. vocal slides), keeping a tasteful vibrato (rather than allowing it to take over his voice, as it sometimes seemed to for Amanda Seyfried and Russell Crowe). At times his voice seems uneven, wavering and almost bordering on too high a pitch, but looking at his other work – in, for example, the Boy from Oz on Broadway, where he shows himself clearly capable of steadily belting on key – this sudden tenuousness seems like a stylistic choice. It makes him seem older, plainer. Not like a trained singer (although again, just singing Les Mis does require a great deal of technical skill), but like an ordinary man who likes to sing to himself. “Who am I?” he asks, his voice faltering at the end. The line’s lack of vocal perfection mirrors the humility of the realization.

Despite having the biggest diva number in the whole show, Anne Hathaway seems to approach her role with the same humility. While she is clearly technically skilled, and has a lovely natural tone, she doesn’t overindulge in the sound of her own voice. Rather, she remains quiet and fairly restrained throughout her first number and for a large part of “I Dreamed a Dream”. The way she almost seems to strain to make her voice small, at times whispering instead of voicing notes, imitates the way a poor woman of that time might have spoken – meek in an effort to appease authorities. In addition, like Jackman, Hathaway manages to find emotion in the quiet moments – for example, in the intro of “I Dreamed a Dream”, where she’s singing quietly, almost a capella, as if she’s singing a lullaby to herself. She builds up not in volume, but in the unsteadiness of her voice—to the point where you’re afraid she’s going to break off into tears. Because she establishes a gradient of tones from shaky to steadily supported, the same way an actor would when speaking, it means something when she sustains a long clear note at the end of “time gone by__” as if she’s drawing the dream out in each of those lines. Furthermore, the fact that this nuance, all of this subtle and incredibly moving work is being done at such a small level is only possible because of the medium of film, where it is possible for the audience to feel physically close to the character’s most intimate moments.

The closeness of the camera makes all the more intense those moments where Hathaway does burst out into pained, almost screamed lines (i.e. “He took my childhood in his stride”). It’s a bit like being in a small room with someone who has just had a traumatic experience – you feel flustered, like you should be doing something…or perhaps you shouldn’t even be watching…but you can’t look away.  And here we get to the heart of Hooper’s Les Miserables: Hooper wants you to look. He wants you to see, and hear, and be aware of their whole world. The quiet realism of the actors’ voices invites you into their world before revealing how ferociously painful it really is. Similarly (yet perhaps inversely), the shots go from grand, sweeping shots of prisoners pulling in a giant, broken ship to the dripping wet faces of the prisoners, from a serenely beautiful bird’s eye-view of the French countryside to the dirty, disease ridden streets of Paris. In staged productions, the physical distance between the audience and the stage is a factor that determines the way actors will perform the show – because of the distance between the audience and actors, the actors must exaggerate in order to make their reality reach the audience. Meanwhile, the wide range of shots available with a camera gives Hooper and the actors free range.

There’s a way that the alternating closeness and distance of the audience from the characters seems to reflect the odd combination of “grittiness” (as many critics have described it) and grandness in the movie. On the one hand, the shot of the tattered pieces of Jean Valjean’s letter twisting about in the sky, circling higher and higher against a gorgeous, grand view of the mountaintops, but also getting battered by the wind, seems to suggest an almost antagonistic relationship between the grand and the gritty, or the weak – that it is, in fact, the search for nobility or elevation in some way is what will destroy these characters. Yet the way Anne Hathaway draws us into her song with an unassuming voice only to surprise us with a kind of raw power, the way the vocal imperfections in her performance create a moving emotion suggests the opposite, that out of the grittiness, grows nobility – a genuine grandness that seems, to the audience, earned.