Title: Les Miserables
Genre(s): Drama, Musical, Romance
Director(s): Tom Hopper
Release Year: 2012
Rotten Tomatoes: 70%
The King’s Speech was one of my favorite films of 2010, bolstered by an incredible performance from Colin Firth and a heartfelt story of overcoming adversity. It managed to be both a beautiful looking period piece and tell a story worth telling, one that made me feel for the main character in ways I never thought I would. So following that, Tom Hooper decided to tackle the story of Les Miserables and adapt it into a massive musical production, one that would attempt to blend drama and music like never before, forcing the emotion out of every viewer. And the film would very well have done that if not for some missteps in its execution and a very predictable script. Les Miserables has the epic feeling it seeks in both its beginning and ending, but everything in between is a muddled mess of redundancies, inconsistencies, and a blatant disregard of the viewer’s ability to comprehend basic characteristics of film.
Les Miserables takes place in the early 1800s, with the French Revolution serving as a backdrop to a lot of the drama on screen, until the third act of the film. The film opens strong with a beautiful, and chilling scene on a boat with convicts as Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) is released on parole by Javert (Russell Crowe). Already the film is moving in the right direction with a great rendition of “Look Down” that demonstrates the talent on display and just how Tom Hooper’s decision for live singing adds an incredible amount of volume to the already powerful songs. Valjean decides to try and start a new life under a new identity, but once discovered, is hunted by Javert throughout the duration of the film. Meanwhile, Valjean saves Fantine (Anne Hathaway), a prostitute, from arrest and vows to take care of her daughter Cosette (played by Isabelle Allen until the film flash forwards to 1832 and Amanda Seyfried plays the older version). Once it’s 1832, the French Revolution plays a bigger role in the story by moving itself to the foreground as revolutionaries plan to make a stand for the poor. The movie may open strong, but once Anne Hathaway’s beautiful version of “I Dreamed a Dream” is sung, everything takes a nosedive.
Well, a nosedive might be too harsh of a description; the movie has problems right from the beginning with songs that are way too long, barely move the plot forward, and spell out simple details that could have been inferred by the audience. Inference may not be the best thing to rely on with a film, but when an entire character arc has played out, the last thing that’s required is a song that tells us said character arc in excruciating detail and redundancy. It’s as if the film isn’t aware it’s a film that people are watching and has to let us know both visually and then again orally before it decides the audience understands. But I understand that the songs are the most important part of the film, so one would assume that there would at least be some stand-out songs from the film. And luckily, there are a few, even one that Javert himself delivers despite Crowe’s horrifying monotonous noises that Hooper would have the audacity to let pass as “singing.” It could be since his character is stern and barely fluctuates in emotion that the monotone voice may have been preferred, but it’s just so terrible. Unfortunately all the really good songs like “Look Down” and “I Dreamed a Dream” occur in the first half hour or so of the movie, and then the rest of the songs are barely tolerable with the exception of a handful. The revolutionary songs are great, and definitely add to the epic scale in which Hooper is trying to emulate but a lot of the emotion built in feels contrived due to the stylistic choices made.
I went in knowing Hooper had the intention of making a very depressing film, unfortunately, besides moments with Fantine, I felt nothing. The way the movie is shot in the same style as The King’s Speech makes it look great, especially when flashes of color occur letting the contrasting browns and reds blend beautifully. There’s also tons of sweeping camera movements which take in the grand architecture and set pieces that have been elaborately designed. But then there’s the insane amounts of close-ups to show the actors as they sing and act. The use of live singing adds layers to the performance and it must have been stressful for those who had never done a musical before to act while at the same time singing, something most would not have been trained to do prior. It’s a choice that most actors are able to overcome, but not one of its leads, Russell Crowe. I wonder if the film might have been more enjoyable with highly-trained singers and alright actors but the film would probably have faltered due to how much acting is still the main requirement.
And really, the cast Hooper has assembled here is quite the spectacle, with Hugh Jackman leading the fray and delivering a great performance as Jean Valjean, and Russell Crowe does great with what little character he’s given in Javert, singing aside. The supporting cast assembled here is great, and pretty much everyone that needs to sing, does a mesmerizing job. Those worth mentioning though are definitely Anne Hathaway, who has been getting tons of praise, and rightfully so, as her performance is easily the best in the entire film, even if it does only amount to a small amount of screen time. Then there’s also Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter who liven things up with some humor, though their characters play against the film’s intent and mostly just contribute to the extremely long runtime. But their performances were much appreciated because of just how dull this movie would have been without their colorful characters.
The major problems with this film are just similar ones that plague most musicals. First of all, the fact that this is supposed to be a soaring epic is hindered by the choice to do the film as a musical. “This is a factory, not a circus,” Valjean states in the early moments of Les Miserables and without him stating it I might have been completely confused. Everyone gives great performances, and generally sing very well, but most of the time the songs just feel like a poor substitution for what could have been said better in plain speech. There’s also just a lot of giant plot points that hinge heavily on coincidences, such as when Valjean finds Cosette. And the love story between Marius (Eddie Redmayne) and Cosette doesn’t feel earned, and that may be because the main story isn’t about those two, it’s about Valjean, so the love angle never gets introduced until halfway through the film. If I was supposed to feel for any of these characters, I didn’t and that’s a problem when the movie itself is trying so hard to make me care. Not only that, but it’s a pretty boring film with tons of predictability and generic characters. If it wasn’t for the performances of the film and the visual spectacle achieved, I’d have even fewer kind words to say. If you don’t like musicals, Les Miserables will not be the film to change your mind, but if you enjoy them, this might be your favorite yet.
Overall: Not Recommended