Can You Hear the People Graph Les Miserables?

Sweaty, weeping and exhausted, as you either march, flag raised or plunge in existential horror after Tom Hooper’s new Les Miserables film, you may ask yourself, “What just happened?”

Well, for those kind of questions, there are no answers quite like charts. So let’s get to it!

Crossing the seams

More than in most films, the performances in Les Miserables each go on a singular journey — there are huge gulfs of tone, with the actors bringing different tools and the direction different priorities to a story already crisscrossed with plotlines of disparate scope. Using subjective judgement and an arbitrary 10-point scale, and covering the movie’s nine most important performances (with Cosette and Eponine treated as single performances, albeit by two actors each) I compiled this master table:

Les Mis Table

These are my impressions based on seeing the film — they are not just how the character might or ought to be according to the musical or text, but how I experienced them from the audience. Some definitions:

  • EXPERIENCE IT!

    EXPERIENCE IT!

    Musical chops: A combination of virtuosity, confidence and interpretation brought to the musical aspect of the performance. “Did they sing well?”

  • Star power: The strength, immediacy, and presence of the performance, as the actor realized the character, informed by the star’s fame and gravitas (as it always is, or movie stars would not exist). “Did they command the screen?”
  • Fantine Plotline and Marius Plotline: How heavily each performance featured in each of the film’s main plotlines — the story of indigence, despair and spiritual redemption that comprises most of the first half of the movie, climaxing in 1823, and the story of romance, revolution and the barricades that comprises most of the second half, climaxing in 1832. The biggest seam in the text is between these two plotlines, as they have separate, if complementary priorities.
  • Miserable-ness: A holistic judgement of the degree to which performance achieves the Les Miserables aesthetic, epitomized by the famous engraving of Cosette and the heavy, driving chords that push forward the score. It is affected by how demonstrably sad the character is for the most important parts of the story.

Taking the values from the table and stripping out the plotline data sets, which are there to search for correlations across variables, here’s a summary chart of the vitals of each performance, again, entirely subjective, in arbitrary units (I would have done it in bleu, blanc and rouge, but blanc doesn’t show up well in charts):

Les Mis Performance Chart

Some values deserve some explanation — Amanda Seyfried, who played adult Cosette, is certainly a star, but I didn’t feel that presence much in this movie. Helena Bonham Carter is probably more than one arbitrary unit better at singing than Sacha Baron Cohen in this movie, and less than a full arbitrary unit behind him in star power (it’s debatable she might even bring a bit more star power to her role than he does to his, although he is currently the bigger star with the bigger part), but I was constrained by the number of significant digits in my arbitrary measurement instrument readings. As for Miserable-ness, Cosette, Eponine and Marius are certainly sad parts at times, but the bright, youthful, almost Glee-ish prettiness of the performances in the movie drew off a lot of that intensity for me. Russel Crowe, whose character isn’t that sad most of the time, brought a lot of weight to his role, even if his singing skill is out of place next to all the trained musical theater actors and is more appropriately measured in Foot-of-Grunts. And yes, he gets a 9 on star power. It’s why he’s there.

The chart does a decent job of visualizing what is going on in the movie — a solid performance by Jackman, a standout performance by Hathaway, and then choppy performances across the board with a few points of excellence and vastly different priorities. After coming up with the values, I wanted to see how they correlated with my sense for the two plotlines in the movie — I had my hunches, but I wanted to be able to show them:

Fantine Chart

Sure enough, the bigger stars in the movie lean toward the grim, poverty-driven Fantine plotline, with a pretty clear upward trend of increased star power as participation in that plotline increases. Musical chops didn’t have as major a correlation here as I expected. (Miserable-ness turned out to be a silly variable that just made the graphs look muddled and made it harder to choose cute icons, so I stripped it out for these slices.)

Marius Chart

The Marius plotline isn’t exactly symmetrical — there is both a downward trend of the bigger players in the plotline not being as big stars, and, if you kind of wave off the Hathaway outlier (and this is an arbitrary measurement, after all, why not more), the stronger singers appear to hang out at the barricades.

Peer Review

I understand I have my own perspective on this movie, informed by the fact that I’m a 32-year old man, that this was the first time I saw the show and that I’ve seen Virtuosity at least four times. How did your take on the movie differ, and what conclusions would you draw from your own data set? Sound off in the comments!

16 Comments on “Can You Hear the People Graph Les Miserables?”

  1. Lee #

    The stat grid gave me the horrible/fantastic idea of a Les Mis role playing game. Pete, can you add dexterity / intelligence / strength / charisma columns to that chart?

     
    • fenzel #

      You know everybody would just want to roll a Jean Valjean. The extent to which kids used to strain credulity to give their characters STR 18 +80 and up never failed to amaze. It’s called _exceptional_ strength, people!

       
      • Paul #

        You wouldn’t want to do Les Mis in a D&D style game. At the very least, you should be playing something like GURPS, where it’s a point build system and you take a certain number of negative points in disadvantages to give you more points to spend on advantages, skills, and attributes. Probably the best way to play Les Mis would be in a game of Fiasco. It’s a story telling game where everyone contributes to the narrative concerning a series of bad events for all the characters. Wil Wheaton played it with some people on Table Top.

        Fantine only ranks a 9 out of 10 on the Fantine plotline?

         
        • fenzel #

          “Fantine only ranks a 9 out of 10 on the Fantine plotline?”

          Yeah; she’s not present for a lot of the important events, especially at the beginning.

           
  2. Jinnayah #

    Going into the movie, I had two main concerns:
    I hadn’t heard of any of these people appearing in actual musical theater, except Hugh Jackman
    Movies are—visually—a literal medium; theater is a symbolic medium. I strongly suspected that the sweeping, overwhelming, intertwining melodies and voices necessary for a Les Miserables experience would clash terribly with the dirt and grime necessary to portray nineteenth-century destitution. (This is why the successful modern movie musicals like Dreamgirls and Chicago and Moulin Rouge are those set in the theater: the plot gives an excuse for the theatricality.

    Funny enough, my concerns basically canceled each other out. Because these people, by and large, couldn’t sing well enough, the music was unable to leave movie style behind.

    So it was a better integrated movie than I’d expected.

    Most of my disagreements with your ratings are on ‘star power.’

    Russell Crowe does not rate a 9. He should have: the idea of Crowe inhabiting the character of Javert is brilliant. But his singing was so weak that the movie-makers apparently didn’t even feel able to use his strengths. The presentation of “Star” and “Javert’s suicide” are more embarrassed than they are embarrassing: they didn’t even let him show off his physical presence, instead shooting his feet! It’s a gift to rate his ‘star power’ at 7.

    Eddie Redmayne, on the other hand, deserves at least a 5. Marius was the only character in the entire film whom I trusted both to sound right and look interesting throughout: expressive in face and body as well as in voice. (Am I bizarrely ignoring Hathaway? Probably, but that’s how the performances came across to me.)

    Since “Miserable-ness turned out to be a silly variable” I won’t complain further that you shouldn’t have had to develop a specific definition for it, and, indeed, that it might have been a less silly variable had you let the term speak for itself and just rated miserableness.

     
    • fenzel #

      Thanks for the reply!

      I would dispute that film and video are not symbolic media, but I get where you’re coming from. Certainly there’s a kind of symbolism that happens in stagings of Les Miserables that does not happen in this movie version of Les Miserables. And certainly the bulk of movies project a sense of correspondence to reality that most stage productions in the U.S. and Europe since the mid-20th century haven’t really shared.

      The barricade in particular didn’t work all that well as a symbol because the piling up of broken furniture has a specific relationship with fancy theater that it does not have with movies. To get an equivalent symbol in film, you’d have to set Les Mis in 2045 and have the barricade be a pile of giant broken CGI robots.

      I think there’s also an interesting question of taste with regards to Eddie Redmayne’s performance. I’ve read reviews by people truly impressed by him and those not impressed by him at all, and I can see how both could be right. While everybody talks about Crowe as a gaffe and the way it was filmed as a risk, Redmayne’s performance and characterization might be the most interesting “controversy” in how the film interprets and translates the text.

       
    • fenzel #

      Also, just to get it out there there’s a fair amount of musical theater experience in the cast and familiarity with the top tiers of musical theater in the U.S. and London, albeit spare few legit musical theater stars. Looking up the specifics…

      Colm Wilkinson, who played the Bishop, is a heavy hitter who originated the role of the Phantom of the Opera and played Jean Valjean in both the original London and Broadway English productions of Les Mis. It’s kind of weird they didn’t capitalize on that more while marketing the film.

      Isabelle Allen, who played young Cosette, is only 10, was just doing local musicals when she was signed, but now she’s going on to play young Cosette in the West End production.

      Samantha Barks played Eponine on the London stage — of course, this was after she was on a reality show as a singer, but before that she was in the the U.K. touring company of Cabaret. She is currently in the U.K.-Ireland touring company of Oliver!

      Aaron Tveit, who played Enjorlas, is a full-on Broadway guy who has been in Wicked! along with a bunch of other on- and off-Broadway shows and regional stuff. He won the Actors Equity best supporting actor in a musical award in 2009.

      Daniel Huttlestone, the little kid, was in Oliver! at the Drury Lane theatre from 2009-2011, and played Gavroche in Les Mis at the Queen’s Theatre in London. He is also now in the U.K. touring production of Oliver! as the Dodger.

      Eddie Redmayne was a child musical theater actor and did a West End production of Oliver! as a kid with Sam Mendes. It looks like he mostly did Shakespeare and plays as an adult.

      Anne Hathaway was primarily a singer when she was younger and sang in a Broadway musical review back in 2002. She actually went to a rival high school to mine (well, rival in Quiz Bowl, at least) was in All-U.S. chorus and did shows at the Paper Mill Playhouse in NJ before she did movies(though I don’t know how many were musicals).

      Mark Pickering, another one of the young revolutionaries, was in the English National Youth Music Theater for a while.

      Helena Bonham Carter is of course a successful London stage actress in addition to a film actress, although she doesn’t sing.

      Amanda Seyfried did the Mamma Mia! movie, but so did a lot of people.

      So, the point is, Russell Crowe, Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter are pretty much the only major actors in the movie who have not succeeded in musical theater at a very high level — albeit fewer in the cast have achieved the highest.

       
      • Julie #

        Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter were both in Sweeney Todd (giving them as much musical cred as Amanda Seyfried).

        So really, only Russell Crowe is left out.

         
      • Jinnayah #

        Thanks for the catalog of experience. Truly impressive how many things entertainment people do.

        I would like to clarify that I didn’t assume the full cast and crew were rookies, or that the stars are the only people that matter. I just thought it was a bad sign that not one of the primary characters (Valjean, Javert, Fantine, Cosette, and Marius by my count) were played by someone generally known as a professional-level singer as well as an actor. It’s a far cry from Dreamgirls, which stars an Oscar winner, a Tony winner, and a Grammy winner even before you mention Eddie Murphy or Jennifer Hudson (whose performances I—and, I think, most of the world—enjoyed and respected most).

        And I admit that it may be more of a bad sign in my eyes than on average. I have for over 20 years loved Les Mis entirely through its music, because of a childhood attachment to a particular European professional production in a language other than English or French. My devotion to that production is such that I spent much of December ‘inoculating myself’ with its recording so that I could mentally to ‘dub’ any song for which I didn’t want to hear the actor’s voice or the English text. This worked excellently: although I noticed how out-of-place Crowe sounded, I don’t actually remember hearing him. If that sounds selfish—well, yes, it is; but it was my spouse’s idea, not mine, to see the movie at all.

        (Even though I certainly enjoyed going, so I suppose I’m doing way too many qualifications and counter-qualifications of my own statements. Well, this IS the overthinking weblog!)

         
        • James #

          Well Valjean certainly is ;) Hugh is a Tony winning broadway star who was known for that before he was known for his movies. The rest I agree

           
          • Jinnayah #

            No. Jackman debuted on Broadway in late 2003: after X-Men, after Kate & Leopold, after Swordfish, after even X2. And I am pretty darn confident that there’s a lot of the moviegoing public that still think Wolverine! first & foremost when they see Jackman’s face.

            It’s funny, though — you’re the second person in 2 days to tell me Jackman was known for Broadway first. Am I suddenly interacting with a much higher proportion of non-superhero-movie people?

             
          • James #

            Yup, you’re right my apologies. I must have been thinking about his stage acts in general and just thought it was broadway (incorrectly). He did star in Oklahoma! in the West End before any of his major movies (1998 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hugh_Jackman#Oklahoma.21 ). I’d still stand by my generally known as a professional singer as well as an actor piece though, he has a Tony (and an Oliver awards nomination) which I think qualifies.

             
          • Matthew Belinkie #

            @Jinnayah – Well, he’s definitely KNOWN more as Wolverine, but he started his career in musical theater and he’s been pretty upfront about his passion for it. Remember when he hosted the Oscars and did a big song and a SEPARATE dance number?

            In any case, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with casting famous people who aren’t KNOWN for singing… so long as they CAN sing. Remember Ewan MacGregor in Moulin Rouge, Richard Gere in Chicago, or Johnny Depp in Sweeney Todd. (You may have disliked some or all of those, but I thought they were great.) And Rick Moranis in Little Shop is one of my all time favorite movie musical performances. None of those people were known for singing before those movies. Sometimes people surprise you (but sometimes they are Russell Crowe, apparently).

             
    • Anton Sirius #

      Eddie Redmayne was awful in Les Mis, sorry. He’s uncharismatic, his vocal performance in the film had no power and he’s kind of funny-looking to boot. He was the second-weakest link in the cast after Crowe, and giving him a ’3′ in star power is being too kind.

      I may be biased though, since I’ll probably never be able to forgive any of the actors who appeared in Hick.

       
  3. A. Gibbons #

    It’s Enjolras. Not Enjorlas. Enjolras. Please.