First off, take my wife’s assessment as probably being closer to your own. A big fan of the stage musical (we first saw it in the early 1990’s), she says she liked the movie but not loved it. On a rating scale that probably translates to a three and a half to four out of five.
My one line assessment: it sucked. Ok, maybe a little better than that, say a two out of five.
Other than Ann Hathaway as Fantine—who was not just good but awesome—no other actor could sing even moderately well. If a musical is to entertain, it should have as a minimum people who can sing. On that level it failed to entertain.
Second, the acting was either mediocre at best or downright poor at worst. Hugh Jackman very much looked the part of Valjean, but his acting was stiff and awkward. Russell Crow, who I love as an actor, was terrible, cartoonish and graceless, and wow could he not sing. Those who played the landlord and his wife were horrible. Those that played Marius and the rebels were pathetic. The only standouts were Ann Hathaway again, and Samantha Barks as Eponine.
But as I see it, the failure went beyond singing and acting. It was a failure to understand the genre. This is going to be a little complicated. One has to start with the novel, and let me be up front I have not read this tome of a novel. But as I understand it the novel is a 1500 page work about Romanticized ideals, about love, faith, generosity, mercy, and goodness. Romanticized ideals are truths. They are not falsities; they are universal truths and because they are universal they are all around us and so easily become clichés. To avoid the triteness of a cliché, one has to bolster it with detail and elaboration, and therefore you get 1500 pages to justify those ideals.
Yes, the stage musical compressed the story, removing the bolstering of those ideals. But with music, the sound arrangement and more specifically the recurring melodies carry and justify the ideals. Take a pop song. Notice how typically the lyrics are just snippets, hardly enough to convince a listener of a theme if the song was just read out loud with no accompaniment. What happens is that the music fills in what is left out, and carries the theme to a logical and complete expression. And so the beautiful melodies of the stage drama make credible the themes of love, faith, generosity, mercy, and goodness. In effect, the novel and the stage musical are two different works of the same story.
Where the film goes wrong is that the addition of a visual eye—the camera—undermines the idealism of the music. It emphasizes the gritty realism perhaps in an effort to be congruent with the stylistic features of the novel, while still keeping the compression of the musical. Yes, the music is still there, but it works at counter ends to the realism instead of complementing it. On stage gritty details are either absent or not discernible, and so the music, as the melodies are linked to the ideals, carries the themes. In the novel, the expanded gritty details carry the themes. In the film, the gritty details—now compressed and closer to clichés—clash with the ideals expressed musically. The film had to make a decision in which genre—a realistic story or a musical—to get it right, and it chose both. I don’t know if that makes sense to my dear readers, but that’s how I see it.
So does that mean you shouldn’t see the movie, even if you buy into my argument? No! Go see the movie. It’s still a great story and if you spend enough money making the movie, it’ll always be appealing. Ignore the bad acting and bad singing.
Here’s what I really liked about it. I don’t recall the stage musical being so overtly Christian. The film is demonstrably Christian in its imagery, complementing its core Christian themes. It warmed my Christian heart. It even used Victor Hugo’s quote as a summation, “To love another person is to see the face of God.” And he’s not talking about sex or even romantic love. This movie embodies what Christianity is all about. Second, the movie got the Fantine part of the story perfectly, and Ann Hathaway nailed it with her singing and acting. Her death scene just crushes the heart. For that alone the movie is worth it. Finally, despite the mediocre acting and really poor singing, over time one grows fond of Hugh Jackman as Valjean. His final scene is also very moving.
And the music is still the music of the stage. The melodies are heaven sent.
Here’s a audio of Hathaway singing “I Dreamed a Dream.” Unfortunately they don’t provide the corresponding video.
If you see the movie, stop back and let me know what you think.