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Do Critics Hear the People Sing? In Defense of Les Miserables

01/02/2013 06:30 pm ET | Updated Mar 04, 2013

When the musical Les Miserables hit Broadway 25 years ago, it was not a critical darling. It went on to sweep the Tony Awards and become one of the longest running shows in Broadway history. Today, producer Cameron Mackintosh announced plans to revive the now-beloved epic drama on the Great White Way in 2014.

Will the newly released cinematic adaptation follow a similar path? While the nearly three-hour film came in No. 1 at the Christmas Day box office, with the top CinemaScore audience reception (grade A), film critics have not all been "singing" Les Mis' praises, so to speak. Movie musicals are hardly universally beloved, so some negative commentary was expected, but plenty of reputable journalists have been surprisingly harsh on director Tom Hooper's adaptation. Whether Hooper (The King's Speech) will strike Oscar gold again (a decade after the last Best Picture-winning musical, Chicago) remains to be seen.

I think it should, and I certainly hope this dream I dreamed comes true (moratorium on song title puns). I'm the first to admit my bias: I saw the emotional powerhouse that is Les Miserables on Broadway at age seven and have been hooked since. Since then I have experienced the show on London's West End and twice more on Broadway, obsessively listening to the beautiful soundtrack in between. So yes, I eagerly anticipated the all-star, live-singing movie, and no, I was not disappointed. (I saw it at an advanced screening in November and again on Christmas, and cried even more the second time.)

I'll save the review, but the faithful film of the musical phenomenon is just as emotionally exhausting and breathtaking as it should be. It left me properly devastated and touched, and surely ready to analyze the performances. (Anne's got Best Supporting in the bag. Jackman is unexpectedly powerful. Barks' musical theatre background is easily apparent with crazy live vocals. Kids are adorable. Cohen and Carter are hilarious.) It was not perfect. Aspects that bothered me with the first screening were sensible the second time, but I also picked up on new elements that were perhaps "too much" during my viewing on Christmas. My problem is with the nature of the critical backlash, as I feel the key points deeming it "a bad movie" (TIME's Richard Corliss) are, to some extent, invalid.

I am a college student and by no means have a more esteemed viewpoint than the top film critics in the country -- and this all really is a matter of opinion. However, many of the criticisms Hooper's movie is facing are either overblown or not necessarily even for the worse. For example, the Rotten Tomatoes one-line review negatively refers to the film as "bombastic," as did several of the harsher critics. (The aggregator has about 72 percent of "fresh" critiques -- a majority, but not a vast one indicating an Oscar shoo-in.) The seven-year-old me would not have been as moved by Broadway's Les Mis had it been a subtle or understated musical drama. It is, by default, revered for its dramatic, arguably over-the-top depiction of the misery of nineteenth century France. The stunningly arranged songs, composed by Claude-Michel Schonberg and Alain Boubil, succeed due to their triumphant symphonic glory. After all, it is the spectacle of "One Day More" -- combining the show's elements of revolution, humor, morals and romance -- that has given audience members chills over the decades. Hooper faced a difficult task in adapting such an inherently theatrical work of art for the screen, where frames and takes define a plotline and the camera brings viewers physically closer to the actors. He smartly (and quite beautifully, for the most part) utilized live vocals to embody characters' rawness and believability. This is perhaps most evident in the heartbreaking, decidedly "un-belty" single-take performance of the famous ballad "I Dreamed a Dream" by Anne Hathaway.

This poignant sequence was praised by Manhola Dargis in her New York Times review, even as the article was generally unfavorable. "By the grand finale, when tout le monde is waving the French tricolor in victory, you may instead be raising the white flag in exhausted defeat," she cleverly concluded. A good line used as a critique, but the epic musical's ability to exhaust viewers or temporarily emotionally drain them is not necessarily a bad thing -- it's onscreen drama doing its job effectively. Giving a C grade in her Entertainment Weekly review, Lisa Schwarzbaum controversially wrote she "longed for guillotines." She went on to criticize the source musical itself as "tinny," exposing a previous partiality that tainted a fair review. Hundreds of angry commenters challenged that Schonberg and Boubil's music is anything but "listless."

This representation of the "people singing" (it's hard to avoid) ultimately is not the concern of critics, who are professionally trained to opine. I'm not, but I am concerned with the (certainly influential) negative response of about 28 percent of those who are, as more than 70ish percent of moviegoers probably loved Les Mis. The film is flawed -- sure, its symbolism can be a bit obvious and prone to melodramatic actor close-ups. And it redefined the term tearjerker. (Bring a jumbo box of tissues if you haven't seen it.) But Les Miserables also adeptly took advantage of cinematic elements that couldn't be portrayed effectively onstage, with motifs like Javert's shoes. A Best Picture should be groundbreaking (revolutionary?) and memorable, not formulaic and trite. So even if critics are too nitpicky, it is, overall, an undeniably moving tour de force. Hopefully the Academy hears the people -- the theatre geeks and the masses -- sing for this faithful musical masterpiece.