Driving home from the Santa Monica advance screening of Universal's Les Misérables on Saturday for Academy members, I spotted a huge poster for the movie on a building in Westwood which proclaims it is "A musical phenomenon about fight, dream, hope and love." I turned to my companion and said that this is a rare occasion when those words more than match the deed.
Indeed, this movie is the most thrilling film I have seen in many, many years, perhaps ever.
Remember, I have been in the movie business in various ways, mainly producing, for 60 of my 80 years, and have worked with some of its best talents, ie. Billy Wilder. I must have seen several thousand films in my lifetime, and I happen to believe that the British magazine which last month proclaimed Hitchcock's Vertigo the best movie ever, over Citizen Kane, is bonkers.
Neither of them hold a candle to A Place in the Sun, Red River or Godfather I & II. But Les Mis is another kettle of fish altogether. I think that it lifts the movie 'art' to a new dimension of excellence and excitement, which has not been seen before since perhaps Abel Gance's tri-screen Napoleon in the '20s.
3D is exciting and important when handled well (Ang Lee's Life of Pi), but it is a technology more than an artistic achievement. Here, from the moment the screen opens up to reveal a long line of convicts hauling a ship into drydock in early 19th century France, we are caught up in spectacle that is both majestic and intimate. The fact that all the dialogue is sung immediately sets the mood that we are in for something special.
Director Tom Hooper (The King's Speech) joined with several cast members to speak briefly to us before the screening, and he admitted that seeing this sea of faces in front of him has finally convinced him that the film is finished. (He also mentioned that it was two years ago Friday he had opened The King's Speech in New York, and went on to win the Oscar for that.) He related that he had actually wrapped this film at 2 a.m. Thursday (Thanksgiving) evening in time for two screenings in New York on Friday at Lincoln Center arranged by the inimitable Peggy Siegel, and a friend who was there told me that the film was interrupted by applause 14 times and received a standing 10-minute ovation at the end.
He said to me, "This is the 800-pound gorilla in the Oscar race." If I were Daniel Day-Lewis, I would be wondering if my hold on the best male actor statue for Spielberg's Lincoln was as firm as everyone thought. Hugh Jackman here gives a performance for the ages as the indomitable Jean Valjean. I reflected on another statement made by Hooper to our audience; he stated that over 90 percent of the singing was shot 'live' and not prerecorded, many of the songs done in one take! "I didn't want any barriers between emotion and realism and truth, so for me it was very important that the actors playing these characters were producing these songs out of the depths of their souls in that moment." Did they ever!
Oh, my God, what an achievement for all involved. Anne Hathaway, in a somewhat truncated part as the extremely fragile Fantine, breaks your heart when she sings "I Dreamed a Dream," (forget about the Susan Boyle version of this, Anne's is slow, desperate and amazing) as she sings of the daughter she will never see again, and I see a supporting actress statue in her grasp, which is kind of ironic considering the slings and arrows she received for fronting the Oscar show last year. (Yes, I was as guilty as the rest.) In Saturday's Los Angeles Times, she says that her chopped hairdo (locks cut off for sale) makes her look like "her older gay brother."
The picture, which opens in L.A. on December 13, will screen officially for Academy members on December 15, and I predict it will be one of those rare Academy screenings where ordinarily diffident members line up in front of our building an hour or two in advance to assure themselves of seats... It happened recently to Lincoln. I am not going to go into a detailed review... that I leave to my favorites, the New York Times' Manola D. and Wall Street Journal's Joe Morgenstern, and the other professional assassins, but I must recall some special moments since I have been unable to sleep since I saw it, just running the film over and over in my head and perhaps this way I can somewhat dispose of them.
You'll remember from the stage musical, seen by 60 million people in 42 countries in 21 languages, adapted from Victor Hugo's novel, that it depicts the story of prisoner 24601, Jean Valjean, imprisoned for 19 years for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his starving family, who when he is released from prison, breaks his parole to create a new life for himself while evading the grip of the relentless Inspector Javert. It reaches its conclusion against the June revolution of 1831. Hathaway plays a working class girl forced to turn to prostitution to pay the evil innkeeper and his wife, the Thenardiers, played hilariously by Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter, to care for her daughter Cosette. (I don't know if it was an inside joke, since Helena always wears dark glasses in real ife, that in one party scene she is also seen wearing them... were they even invented then?) Someone next to me said that when they sang "Master of the House," it reminded him of Sweeney Todd. (Incidentally, can someone explain who was the white-haired man on the steps at the end of the movie?)
Valjean promises to care for the daughter when the mother is on her deathbed, and it leads to complications later when a young revolutionary student, Marius, falls for his ward, Cosette, played by Amanda Seyfried. I had a chance to talk to Amanda and her mother outside the theatre before the screening, and the young-looking, leggy actress confessed to being nervous and terrified at seeing the movie. Not to worry, she was excellent as the innocent ingénue. An actor named Eddie Redmayne played Marius, and he was also there. A stunning British actress named Samantha Barks, also at our screening, almost stole the movie as the wayward Eponine, a girl of the streets also in love with Marius.
She has to cry and sing "On My Own" in the pouring rain, and Hooper said she did it "many, many times." She is the only cast member to have performed in the stage musical. Russell Crowe is a powerful Inspector Javert, and while his singing is not quite a match for the others, his intensity and presence bring a majestic attitude to a role which once remained owned by Charles Laughton in the old black-and-white film of this story. I once met two of the producers, the guys from Working Title, Eric Fellner and Tim Bevin, and remember them as cool, calm and tough customers who eschew the extraneous trappings of the business for the essence of it. (They turned down my pitch for a film about the famous art forger in London, saying they had something similar in development.) Cameron Macintosh was the tireless producer of the musical and is also a producer here. But it is the music, of course, which carries it to spectacular heights, and for that we must be thankful to Claude-Michel Schönberg for the music and original French lyrics by Alain Boublil and Jean-Marc Natel, with an English libretto by Herbert Kretzmer and the screenplay by William Nicholson. (Screenplay? It's all lyrics. Must explore this more.)
Think of the songs which have enthralled you over the years, and then be prepared to be astonished at how they sound when sung by these talented people against the realistic settings of torn-apart France. "I Dreamed a Dream," "Bring Him Home," "One Day More," and "On My Own"... just glorious and moving. I must admit I cried many times throughout the film, and I was not alone. Someone today said there was a poster in the works: The film that makes grown men cry.
I read that it has taken 27 years to bring this version of Les Misérables to the screen. It was worth the wait. It is the cinematic musical experience of a lifetime... and I am thrilled that I finally got to see it on film. (No digital here.) You will be too, trust me.
To subscribe to Jay Weston's Restaurant Newsletter ($70 for twelve monthly issues) email him at firstname.lastname@example.org