Early Reaction: Oscar Race Heats Up As NYC Screening Of 'Les Miserables' Prompts Cheers & Tears

Les Miserables First Look

Judging from a raucously well-received  New York screening of Les Misérables on Friday afternooon, the most exciting aspect of the 2013 Oscar race will be  a contest between the precision of Steven Spielberg's Lincoln and the passion of Tom Hooper's epic musical. An enthusiastic audience that included Anne Hathaway's actress mother Kathleen Ann (she gave her daughter a big thumbs up from the crowd), applauded and sniffled its way through the two-hour-39-minute feature and a post-screening at Lincoln Center's Alice Tully Hall. 

Hooper was kidding when, during the Q&A session that also featured cast members, Amanda SeyfriedSamantha Barks,  Eddie Redmayne  and Hathaway, he told the audience that he put "a lot of gaps in the edit" to allow for applause. And yet, the picture had the audience — which seemed to be packed with Broadway aficionados — cheering at the end of each musical number, weeping during the tear-jerking final scenes and delivering a standing ovation at film's end.

Based on their applause, Hugh Jackman, who anchors the film as the ex-con Jean Valjean, and Hathaway, who plays the doomed grisette Fantine, are shoo-ins for Best Actor and Supporting Actress nominations, despite the latter actor's much-too-brief screen time. (Thank you, Jamie, for setting the record straight.)

One reason there aren't a lot of musicals on the big screen these days is that they're hard to take seriously in a world where Saturday Night Live has come to rely on half-baked musical parody as a weekly crutch — Les Miz got the treatment when Hathaway hosted two weekends ago — and Trey Parker and Matt Stone are doing both musicals and musical parody better than anyone. (The Book of Mormon is that good.)   If you're a fan of South Park, there will be a moment early on in the movie where you'll find yourself anticipating the inevitable Les Miz parody that Cartman, Stan and Kyle will enact (Cosette's tattered rag doll, which is literally a knotted rag is a guaranteed punchline), but if you suspend your disbelief for just a bit longer, Hooper and his cast will make you glad you did.

In a movie season that is largely about holding onto humanity in a cruel world, Les Misérables fits the bill beautifully. Both Jackman and Hathaway give raw, heartfelt performances, helped by Hooper's decision to have his actors sing live instead of lip-sync to a pre-recorded soundtack.

During the Q&A, Hooper said that Jackman was not only his first hire for the movie but that the actor's "existence is central to this film."   I get what he means. Jackman gives his all in this movie, and his performance is a tour de force of passion in the same way that Daniel Day-Lewis' portrayal of Abraham Lincoln is a triumph of precision. At this point, the Best Actor race is all about them.

If Hathaway's role didn't require her to die a third of the way into the picture, she could easily have been a contender in the the Best Actress category where the front-runners right now are Marion Cotillard, who's brilliant  (and, in keeping with the Academy's love of physical adversity, legless)  in Rust and Bone, and Jennifer Lawrence, whose mouthy earthiness in David O. Russell's Silver Linings Playbook will resonate with Oscar voters.

Hooper told the crowd that he cast Russell Crowe in the role of Inspector Javert because there aren't many actors who could "get the better of Wolverine" and "Russell Crowe is at the top" of that short list.  Despite that rationale, Crowe is the weak link of the movie. It's not that he can't sing. Indeed, he becomes more engaging as the movie progresses, but his performance is not in sync with the rest of the cast. Crowe's voice reminded me of  Station to Station-era David Bowie, and, in some ways, so did his cool portrayal of Javert, which was at odds with the fervent performances that Jackman, Hathaway and and the rest of the cast deliver. If I'm going to choose a Best Supporting Actor candidate from this picture, it's Redmayne, who portrays Marius. When he mourned the deaths of his fellow revolutionaries by singing "Empty Chairs at Empty Tables," in the final scenes of the movie,  people were weeping on either side of me.

Other aspects of Les Misérables  not so convincing either. Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter are very entertaining as the corrupt husband-and-wife innkeepers, the Thénardiers, but the broad comedy of their scemes feels at odds with the emotional intensity of the rest of the story.  And  Young Daniel Huttlestone, who plays the urchin revolutionary Gavroche, is memorable in his debut role, but his Cockney-Shirley-Temple dialect is illustrative of Hooper's decision to freight a movie about a French revolution with British accents. The script may be peppered with the word "Monsieur," but the performances will remind you more of Dickens than Hugo — particularly Oliver!,  Carol Reed's adaptation of the Broadway musical of Oliver Twist.

On that last count, Hooper is confident enough as a director that I suspect this is not accidental.  Oliver! was nominated for 11 Oscars in 1969 and won six, including Best Picture and Best Director. Les Misérables is poised to do the same.

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  • Jamie says:

    Hathaway is being submitted for Best Supporting Actress so she won't be up against the actresses you mention for Best Actress.

  • badblokebob says:

    It's set in The Past in a country that's Not America -- of course everyone has British accents!

  • AJ says:

    Never seen Les Mis. I appreciate the spoiler warning at the top of the article.

    • Hmm. Well, AJ, the novel has been out since 1862 and the musical has hugely popular since the mid-1980s. In this case, I think a spoiler warning is beside the point.

      • Nancy H says:

        Frank, that was funny....Good review BTW. I cannot wait to see and hear Eddie Redmayne act/sing..Love him..I have read nothing regarding Seyfried's Cosette. I do not care for her acting, so I was worried. How was she?

  • Rod Palmer says:

    Good review. On the Thenadiers, Gavroche and Javert your comments resonate with their characterisations in all the musical versions I can think of. Javert has always been portrayed with steely and rational coldness (think Phillip Quast amongst many fine performances), Gavroche typically urchin cockney and Thenadiers always as comic relief (see Matt Lucas and Jenny Galloway at the 25th anniversary concert). While the latter is at odds with Hugo's 'wicked humanity' portrait, presenting the Thenadiers as comic relief is very popular with musical audiences.

    Overall - can't wait to see it.

  • annljoiner says:

    I don't know how familiar you are with this story, but Inspector Javert is supposed to be at odds with Valjean and the rest of the cast. That's the whole point. He represents the cold, dispassionate rationality of a judgmental law, as opposed to the compassionate mercy of the Bishop of Digne. Your description of the character, and of how he "becomes more engaging as the film progresses" reassures me that Mr. Hooper did, indeed, make the correct choice. I am now more eager than ever.

  • jonathanny says:

    The film is a british production of a french story. It would be silly if they used french accents. It is like if you see an opera or a play. the actors tell the story in their language. it is always silly to me when americans do a play in russian or french accents. The characters would be speaking in russian or french not english with accents. So if they actors are american, tell the story with your their accent. Like current adaptation of Anna Karenina. They are british. Like when it was originally done on broadway

  • SS says:

    I loved your review. I was at the audience in New York and truly enjoyed this film being a big stage fan myself. I agree with your sentiment on the actors including the weakest link as you carefully put it. But considering the integrity of the entire film itself, I would say it is forgivable. For a film fan or the stage fan, this film definitely must not be missed. I commend Tom Hooper for his effort and look forward to the audience reaction when it comes out next month.

  • Baco Noir says:

    Frank, good set-up review, but regarding Javert/Crowe (though I've not seen the film), could it not be argued that his cool rationalism (cop must catch "crook") is exactly how it should be played? That's how I've always seen Javert, anyway.

  • Magnitude says:

    How is it possible you misspelled "thumbs" in the opening paragraph?

  • Mike says:

    Here's hoping for Les Miserables to be a huge hit. Word is that if it is Miss Saigon will be the next show made into a movie.

  • Faye says:

    I blame the musical itself, and not Cohen and Bonham Carter, for the weird juxtaposition of the Thenardiers. There's no way to cut them - they're beloved pseudo-villains and their songs are pretty memorable - but they don't really fit as dramatically into the musical, either, much the way that Gavroche's (often-cut) song "Little People" doesn't really work with the grit of its surroundings either. Both seem like an Oliver!-esque play for dark comedy, but they just are weird fits. I feel like they were perfectly cast (especially since Hooper has worked with Helena Bonham Carter in The King's Speech already and most likely has a good grasp on her range) ...it's just that the songs are a little odd.

    • Faye says:

      ...oh, what I was trying to say there about Oliver, which got kind of muddled, is not that I disagree with you but that I think that the Oliver! similarities happened long before Hooper. It opened the year after a major Oliver! revival, if I'm not mistaken, and definitely the movie's success would have been recent in people's minds. Every Gavroche I've ever seen has had a faux-Cockney accent and dressed like the artful dodger, including American ones -- and Les Mis is usually presented with very little French and a lot of English accent. Clearly Hooper could have changed this, but we have to remember he's courting musical aficionados as much or more than Hugo fans or moviegoers in general.

    • Frank DiGiacomo says:

      Well-said, Faye. Thank you for the most excellent feedback.

  • fordmodelt says:

    Quite a few years ago a famous older actress won the Best Actress Oscar for a movie where she had about 10 minutes of screen time. I'd really like to see Anne Hathaway put up for Best Actress and Samantha Barks nominated for Best Supporting Actress. They both deserve Oscars for their performances in Les Mis.

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