There are three separate video resources for Les Miserables, the most familiar of which to the general public would be the 2012 film version. The best way I can describe that film version is to say that, as a movie, it is close to spectacular, but as music, it’s something of a disappointment.
The show’s epic historical scope was captured extremely well, the material is faithfully treated, and most of the performances were excellent. However, the beauty and emotional power of the show’s score is somewhat weakened by the technique of filming the vocals live rather than using a soundtrack. This results in a somewhat talky vocal style even on the show’s most expansive numbers, and an overall loss of the sheer richness and sweep of the stage score.
Granted, the other two Les Mis video recordings are concerts, so everyone is standing at microphones rather than acting out the scenes, and there is only the most minimal of scenery. But since Les Mis was modeled on real opera, the score carries most of the dramatic content anyway, and the action and conflict still come across strongly.
Hugh Jackman, one of the few modern A-list movie stars who is also a seasoned Broadway veteran, is an absolutely luminous Valjean in both his acting and singing, even if the film’s talky singing style detracts somewhat from his vocal splendor. Alfie Boe is a bit of a blusterer as Valjean in the 25th Anniversary concert, emoting melodramatically and sometimes shouting more than singing, but despite being a far less talented performer than Jackman, he still does more singing and less talking on Valjean’s songs that Jackman did. However, Colm Wilkinson in the Tenth Anniversary concert has them both beat by a mile. He was the very first Valjean in both the London and Broadway productions, so the part was specifically written for him, and he sings and acts it better than anyone else ever has or ever will, hands down. (He also makes a cameo in the movie, bringing a special gravitas to the small but key role of the Bishop of Digne).
Russell Crowe is about as bad a singer as reputation has made him out to be, but he does provide an impressive study of Javert’s character, and is surprisingly interesting in the role despite his poor vocal performance. Still, he doesn’t come close to the level of Phillip Quast in the Tenth Anniversary cast or Norm Lewis in the 25th Anniversary version, both of whom make marvelously intimidating Javerts (Lewis may be the scariest Javert on record). They may be a little too imposing for this ultimately rather pathetic character, in contrast to Crowe or Terrence Mann on the Original Broadway cast album, but they both have the strong baritone voice that the role requires, which Crowe emphatically does not.
Lea Salonga in the 25th Anniversary cast may well be the best Fantine of all time. If you’ve been so jaded by the overexposure of “I Dreamed a Dream” that you think you’ll never be able to properly appreciate it again, just listen to Salonga’s version. Anne Hathaway, who plays Fantine in the movie, gets the best chance to show off her beautiful singing voice and abilities as a serious actress that she’s ever received, and the role won her a level of credibility she had never received before, showing that in spite of her lengthy list of bad roles she is still a splendid performer. Ruthie Henshall in the Tenth Anniversary cast is a less distinctive Fantine than the other two (not surprising, given who she had to compete with), but she too does a fine job with the part, singing well and acting with suitable intensity.
Marius is rather an underwritten character to begin with…the original authors relied too heavily on the personality of his original performer, Michael Ball, and didn’t write enough actual interest into the character’s material. Ball is on hand to reprise his role in the Tenth Anniversary cast, and he will always be the ideal choice for the role. That said, Eddie Redmayne in the film does a better job of making this two-dimensional role seem genuinely interesting than anyone else since Ball himself. Nick Jonas in the 25th Anniversary concert, on the other hand, comes off as downright annoying in most of his scenes, although he does deliver a moving “Empty Chairs At Empty Tables”.
The character of Cossette is essentially a lost cause in any production…if Judy Kuhn can’t make your character seem interesting, no-one can. Kuhn does her best on the Tenth Anniversary recording, as does Amanda Seyfriend in the movie, who at least has the advantage of actually being as gorgeous as Cossette is supposed to be in-story. Katie Hall’s girlish, prettily sung performance in the 25th Anniversary is no more than capable, but this is a thankless part no matter what you do with it, so it doesn’t make that much difference.
More than a decade before Lea Salonga played Fantine, she was Eponine in the Tenth Anniversary cast, and she offered an extremely interesting take on the character, drawing on the novel to create a more bitter, complex figure that the sweet ingenues we usually see in the role. Samantha Barks played the role in both the second concert version and the movie, and while she probably sang the part better in the concert, her performance there was somewhat more simplistic than in the movie. In either case, though, she gave an excellent performance, although it would have been fascinating to see what the movie’s original choice, Taylor Swift, would have made of the role, given that the character is similar to the persona she created on her early albums.
Alun Armstrong in the Tenth Anniversary is a brilliant Thenardier, hilarious when he’s called on to be funny but never losing his character’s underlying sense of menace, and his “Dog Eats Dog” is truly chilling. Matt Lucas in the 25th Anniversary delivers an admirably biting “Dog Eats Dog”, but apart from that he might be a little too clownish for the role, and he gets a little grating at times. Still, he’s better than Sacha Baron Cohen in the movie, who is as miscast and off in tone as his screen vis-a-vis Helena Bonham Carter.
The role of Enjolras, the leader of the student rebels, simply belongs to Michael McGuire, who played the role on Broadway and reprises it in the Tenth Anniversary. Aaron Tveit (in the movie) and Ramin Karimloo (in the 25th Anniversary) are much more famous names within the Broadway sphere, and each is pretty electrifying in the role in their own right, but nothing can compete with McGuire’s spine-tingling rendition of “Do You Hear the People Sing?”.
Most of the decisions regarding the 2012 film’s production were correct, and certainly it could have turned out much worse, but if you really want to experience the show on screen, the home videos of either of the two anniversary concerts present the show’s strengths to much better advantage. The truth is that the concerts, despite their lack of full-scale staging, feel much more like an actual stage performance of Les Mis than the film, and the more complete version of the material and more vocally expansive performing style do a better job of capturing the full musical and dramatic impact the show has on stage than the film does.
The Tenth Anniversary version certainly has the best cast (there’s a reason it’s popularly called the ‘Dream Cast’). It really only has one flaw…because it leaves out several plot-relevant portions of sung dialogue, it can leave holes in the narrative if you don’t already know the show’s story. The 25th Anniversary video is more complete, and leaves out virtually nothing that’s essential to the overall plot, but the cast isn’t as consistent as the other two versions. If you want the best means of experiencing the show on video, I’d definitely say the Tenth Anniversary version, but it would be wise to learn a little about the show first, so you’re not confused by the missing plot points. Still, it’s worth doing some research if you’re not already familiar with the show, because the Tenth Anniversary concert is definitely the best video version of this show available.