Les Miserables ReviewJanuary 8, 2013
Tom Hooper’s Les Misérables is a triumph.
There was a time when musicals ruled the box office. With films like West Side Story, Singin’ in the Rain, The Sound of Music and countless animated Disney films, many musicals have collected mounds of box office cash and garnered numerous awards throughout the years. In our more cynical age of cinema, though, musicals have nearly faded out of existence in light of the recent trend towards dark and realistic tales. Still, every so often there comes a musical that is released to much critical acclaim and/or commercial success, with recent examples being Mamma Mia, Tangled and The Muppets. With that in mind, enter one of the most ambitious and eagerly-anticipated musicals in recent memory, the film adaptation of the Broadway production of Les Misérables. There have been numerous film adaptations of Victor Hugo’s classic novel throughout the years, but this film is notable since it is the first big screen version of the immensely popular musical adaptation. Now that Les Misérables has arrived in theaters, is it time to experience the rebirth of the French Revolution?
The year is 1815, and nearly three decades have passed since the start of the French Revolution; however, the efforts of the Revolution are somewhat in vain because a king is once again in power. Thus, many people are subject to the mighty power of the elite class and lead miserable lives as a result. One such individual is Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman), a man who was imprisoned for 19 years for stealing a loaf of bread. He is finally granted parole by the infamous Inspector Javert (Russell Crowe), but he soon blows off said parole in favor of making a new life for himself. Years pass, and Valjean is now the mayor of a struggling town. One night, he comes across a woman named Fantine (Anne Hathaway) who had prostituted herself in order to provide for her illegitimate child Cosette. On that night when the two meet each other, Valjean swears to the dying Fantine that he will take Cosette in and raise her. Jean Valjean cares for Cosette while attempting to evade an obsessive Javert, before he inevitably gets taken back to prison.
Les Misérables has certainly been anticipated for quite some time. After waiting years for a capable team to adapt the musical version to film, Tom Hooper’s take on the Broadway musical has received positive reviews, but not exactly critical reception similar to that of other great films released this year. Even so, I absolutely adored Les Misérables – in fact, I loved it so much that this film is guaranteed to appear on my top ten list for 2012. I have to admit that this film isn’t without its minor flaws, though.
Perhaps the most egregious grievance against the audience is its length, which is strange since while there are certainly scenes that could have been cut, at the same time there are numerous plot threads and songs that were either trimmed or removed completely. The latter can be viewed as a positive, but it may be disappointing for those who have been anticipating seeing some of their favorite musical numbers. Les Misérables is a long film to sit through, but on the bright side this version of the beloved musical is so entertaining that the film seemed to breeze by. The story has depressing motifs to be sure – hence the film’s name – but even so the film moves along at a steady clip.
I also felt that this is one of the most emotionally rewarding experiences of the year. Cynics may disagree, but I was pleased to see that the original Christian message about kindness and redemption through Jesus Christ was carried over since the central theme is hope. The characters of the plot continually wish for a better life, and the film shows how acts of kindness and faith can change a life – something many people need desperate assurance of in our day and age. To carry across a theme though, a story needs memorable characters- luckily, Les Misérables is full of them. I felt that the Thénardiers weren’t as funny as they could have been and the love triangle among Cosette, Eponine and Marius was underdeveloped; however, most of the characters still have enough depth for us to care.
Aside from the immense emotion of the plot though, the dialogue is fun- not because of its wittiness, but because most of the script is delivered through song. The musical Les Misérables has always been notable for that, since the music adds emotional weight to the story, but it also adds power and meaning to what is otherwise great dialogue. Those who dislike this genre will detest the fact that Les Misérables has no normally spoken dialogue, but I guarantee everyone else will love the story. Minor flaws existing in the stage version of this musical carried over due to the near-direct adaptation of the original script, but the story in this iteration of Les Misérables is as good as could be expected.
Perhaps the greatest strength of Les Misérables is the cast, for this film features some of the most memorable performances of 2012. Before I delve deep into the award-worthy performances, let me make one thing perfectly clear – I actually like Russell Crowe in Les Misérables. Yes, there have been numerous critics who have spoken out about his singing voice, while some other people I have spoken to have said that they feel that he was miscast. Sure, they could have picked a better vocalist, but being a singer myself, I actually enjoyed what he brought to the film. His performance was also great, for he properly portrayed Inspector Javert’s obsessive aspirations and humanity.
As great as Hugh Jackman is as Jean Valjean, I do not think he is the standout performer in this film for one reason only: “Bring Him Home.” Though Jackman performs the song with the necessary tenderness and emotion, his version of “Bring Him Home” is nigh unbearable to listen to since the song is remarkably out of his range. Otherwise, this is one of the best performances yet given by Hugh Jackman, for the sheer emotion he brings to the role is absolutely astounding. He is delightfully entertaining in his musical numbers – aside from the aforementioned misfire – while also lending plenty of dramatic depth to the character; Valjean is the life force of the film’s theme of the importance of kindness to all.
Much of the supporting cast is great as well, with standouts being from the youthful members of the crowd. I actually haven’t seen many films featuring Amanda Seyfried at all, so I was pleasantly surprised by her entertaining and heartfelt turn as Cosette. Previous iterations of the musical have portrayed the character in an improperly negative light, but here I was satisfied that Seyfried delivered her lines with subtlety and in a way that gives both humanity and innocence to her character.
Les Misérables also features a couple of relative newcomers to the fray, with a huge standout being Samantha Barks. The young actress is known for previously portraying Eponine in the 25th Anniversary concert as well as in the West End production from 2010-2011. She brings that experience into this version of Les Misérables, for she is extremely good in the role. Barks brings a great degree of subtlety and raw emotion to the role, lending to the cinematic and realistic depiction of the story in Tom Hooper’s film. These characteristics make this film a fresher vision than those in the past. I wished that she was given more time for her character to be completely fleshed out, but Barks still managed to depict her character as a jealous, forgotten girl, especially in the hard-hitting number “On My Own.”
Eddie Redmayne also does a fine job in his role as Marius, the revolutionary who is stuck in a love triangle of sorts between Eponine and Cosette. He stands out greatly in his mostly a capella solo number “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables.” As perfectly cast Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter were as the Thénardiers, I felt that they were underused in the story. They weren’t as funny as they probably should have been – but at least they didn’t distract from the story at hand. Still, for character actors such as those two, they weren’t given much in Les Misérables to truly shine.
Fortunately, there is still one actress left who is so shockingly good that I am championing her in the Oscar race: Anne Hathaway. Much has already been said about her rendition of “I Dreamed A Dream,” and words don’t do her performance complete justice. I will say that this scene hasn’t been over-hyped – this number alone is enough for Anne Hathaway to take home the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress. Out of all the actors in this fantastic ensemble, she exuded the most raw, real emotion in her singing, providing one of the deepest musical performances in cinema history. Another stunning aspect about Anne Hathaway’s performance is that director Tom Hooper chose to keep the camera focused on her during the entirety of “I Dreamed A Dream.” The result ended up being the most gut-wrenching moment for me in any 2012 film, for in those three minutes of singing – without edits of any kind – Anne Hathaway showcased her true range as a thespian.
On the technical end, Les Misérables is truly an unprecedented musical. Tom Hooper is known for winning the Academy Award for Best Director for his work on The King’s Speech, and although I hold that film to a higher esteem, he still did a fantastic job helming this hugely ambitious project. He tended to frame actors on the extreme ends of the shot in the aforementioned film, but in Les Misérables he holds back on that mostly. Instead he mixes his modest style from The King’s Speech with sweeping shots of the sets and environments, making this project feel much more grandiose and bombastic. Tom Hooper and his director of photography managed to use their signature styles to showcase the marvelously-done production design while not distracting from the story at hand. Lastly, Tom Hooper shows that he could potentially direct an action film with some of the hard-hitting, realistically violent sequences in the third act of the film. Even though this film is beautiful to look at, most of the boundary-pushing technical aspects of Les Misérables actually deal with the sound. The idea of recording the actors live on set is an alien one in Hollywood, but here it ended up being a fantastic decision since the music is presented with much more realism and emotion. It results in a fresh, subtle approach that couldn’t be accomplished on stage. Les Misérables still stands as an overstated musical in terms of its story and score, but the possibilities of film nonetheless allowed the team behind this iteration to create significantly more quiet moments in the story. It’s an interesting toss-up for the musical genre, and one that I hope influences future musical productions in Hollywood.
For those who do not like musicals, Les Misérables is unlikely to dissuade you in any way. Despite many quiet moments, this is still as epic of a musical as one ever could be, especially since over 95% of the dialogue is sung by the actors. Les Misérables is not without its flaws either, for I felt that Hugh Jackman screwed up on “Bring Him Home,” Russell Crowe is good but not good enough as Inspector Javert, and certain plot threads of the stage version have been simplified in the transition to film. Still, in Hollywood’s first attempt to adapt the musical version of Les Misérables to film, I can’t imagine a better outcome. Featuring a solid, moving story, one of the best acting ensembles of 2012, unprecedented technical achievements and incredible renditions of immensely popular songs, Tom Hooper’s Les Misérables is a triumph. Our cynical world seems to successful in moving away from this kind of entertainment, but this film begs to differ. If you are looking for emotional escapism and fantastic music, you can’t do much better than Les Misérables.