It’s more than fair to say that I do not count myself in the target market for Les Miserables. When I sat down in my seat, I thought back to the last time I saw a true, live action musical in a theater and I’m pretty sure I had to go all the way back to 1992, when my grandmother randomly took my brother and I to see Newsies at the dollar theater. Suffice it to say, I’m not a big fan of the musical. As such, I consider this to be about the strongest statement I can make about Les Miserables: it’s probably about as good as a musical can be for a guy like me. I guess. How’s that for a ringing endorsement?
In case you’ve never heard of the book, the play, or the previous film adaptation, (I’m talking to you, older Hispanic lady who sat next to me in the theater who didn’t know this was a musical) Les Miserables is the story of Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman), a desperate man who turns back to thievery only days after being released from France’s horrifying prison camp. After being caught with his ill-gotten goods, Valjean is shocked when the priest he stole from pardons him and uses this break to flee his whole life and start anew as a respectable businessman. Somewhere down the line Valjean becomes aware that he has wronged a former employee, Fantine (Anne Hathaway), and seeing the horrible life he has unknowingly subjected her to, he agrees to take in her child, Cosette (Amanda Seyfried), who he treats as his own. Eventually, however, Valjean’s past catches up with him as police captain Javert (Russell Crowe), who apparently has nothing better to do than to spend years focusing on a single parole violator, tracks him down and attempts to bring him in, all against the backdrop of the French Revolution.
Because of the nature of the film (mainly the fact that this is a bloody opera), I’m going to cut Les Miserables at least a little slack up front. If I chose to, I could focus in on the NUMEROUS plot holes that are glossed over with a pretty song and the utter lack of any sort of character development or at least the kind of character development you usually find in a film. Characters and even narrative structures fall apart when you’re singing through the years and the audience is forced to choose whether or not to let this become a road block right off the top. Fantine loses her job, sells her hair, becomes a prostitute, catches syphilis or something, and dies in the span of approximately one song. It’s a bit jarring, really, and I don’t think director Tom Hooper did much to make this passage of time clear (more on Hooper in a bit) but once I got adjusted to the way this thing was going to go, it didn’t bother me near as much as I might have expected it to (until the conclusion). This sort of fast forward viewing is not something I want in a film usually but I decided early on that if I did not accept it, I would hate my life for the next two hours and let my complaints drift away.
Beyond these issues, however, there’s a much bigger problem at the heart of Les Miserables and that is the MISERABLE direction of Hooper and a host of weird choices made behind the camera by everyone involved. I quite liked Hooper’s last film, The King’s Speech, and I don’t get nearly as upset about its Oscar win as some of my contemporaries do. Even still, I wasn’t all that impressed with Hooper’s directorial style in that film and obviously I’m even less impressed this time around. The shot selection is questionable at best and quite quickly I became thoroughly put off by the staggering number of close ups Hooper decided to go with. Seriously, Tom, we get it, you want to show the audience the emotions of the characters. It is possible to do that without Hugh Jackman’s nose taking up the entire screen. This approach works wonders when Hathaway sings “I Dreamed a Dream” (probably the highlight of the whole movie) but he goes back to this technique over and over again, resulting in an obnoxious, distracting experience that simply didn’t need to be. Then there’s the set design which looked like a stage production, a fact that I did not appreciate, and which helped lead to a feeling of uncertainty as to whether Les Miserables was supposed to be the stage production shot for the screen or a film adaption of the stage production. And no Les Miserables review would be complete without spending a moment on the casting of Russell Crowe which makes absolutely no sense whatsoever. Amongst a cast of magnificent voices (and I truly mean that, by the way), Crowe stands out like an ugly, sore thumb. It’s not that he can’t carry a tune; he’s a far cry from Pierce Brosnan in Mama Mia. But he definitely isn’t GOOD, he struggles particularly in the opera-talk sequences, and moreover, it appeared to me as if he was trying so hard to not stink at singing that he forgot to display any kind of emotion. Jackman, Hathaway, and the rest SELL their performances without almost more precision than they sing them but Crowe proved completely incapable of keeping up. There’s really no excuse for casting him, to be quite blunt.
But Les Miserables has three things going for it that overshadow most of the issues. For starters, the story is engrossing, despite the haphazard nature of the storytelling itself. You immediately find yourself rooting for each of the lead characters and hurting right along with them. Second, the performances (outside of Crowe) are all excellent. Jackman owns his part as we all knew he would and Hathaway steals the show for her ten minutes of screen time but it doesn’t end there. Seyfried is captivating in her limited scenes and Eddie Redmayne is a commanding presence, both vocally and physically. This is his coming out party and it’s darn good. Even the first appearance of Sasha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter plays well, though after that I would have liked it better if their characters were marched out in front of a cannon and done away with once and for all. Third, and most importantly, Les Miserables comes equipped with four or five tremendously powerful, Goosebumps-inducing, brilliant moments that build enough momentum to carry the audience through the rest of the film. All of these moments revolve around the film’s best musical numbers and these songs made a far greater impact on me than I anticipated. It’s possible that I downloaded the better songs and have had them in my head for weeks now. That makes Les Miserables a bit of a roller coaster but the highs of that roller coaster ride are incredible and, most of all, memorable.
All of this makes Les Miserables a mixed bag. I grew tired of opera talk by the third act and the conclusion takes FOREVER to unfold, issues that couldn’t have been helped with better direction, but Hooper could have and should have put his film in a better position from the beginning. Still, though, the extreme highs that this film takes you to are so great that I think they win out over the rather lackluster slough of the rest of the film. If nothing else, Les Miserables made me want to see the play it is based on, a feeling I can honestly say I’ve never had before.
Director: Tom Hooper
Cast: Hugh Jackman, Anne Hathaway, Russell Crowe, Eddie Redmayne
Rated: PG-13 (Intense and depressing themes, some sexuality, and a bit of language)
Recommended For: Fans of the play/book, musical fans, and anyone who can bear to sit through Russell Crowe singing for two and a half hours 13 and up