Les Misérables, 2012.
Directed by Tom Hooper.
Starring Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, Anne Hathaway, Amanda Seyfried, Eddie Redmayne, Helena Bonham Carter, Sacha Baron Cohen and Samantha Barks.
In 19th-century France, Jean Valjean – who for decades has been hunted by the ruthless policeman Javert after breaking parole – agrees to care for factory worker Fantine’s daughter, Cosette – a decision that will change their lives forever.
Musicals are not a genre of film I run into with high expectations. I have nothing against the musical. There are several I consider to be quite good. However, it’s something I prefer to see in the theater. It’s a medium best served on the stage. There are some exceptions of course. Singin’ in the Rain is by far better on screen, and I haven’t seen a production of Grease that ever captured the same kind of energy as the big screen adaptation. Every year seems to bring a new musical to the big screen and most of them have done little to change my theory that I’d rather go to the theater to watch a musical. Les Misérables is one of the better movie musicals to come in recent years and makes an interesting argument for the legitimacy of the genre as a cinematic experience.
I’m familiar with many of the songs from the musical and I know the story, but I had never seen the musical production of Les Misérables. That’s probably a good thing because I had no idea what to expect. The movie version tells the story of Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman), a prisoner who has spent nineteen years slaving away in shackles for stealing a simple loaf of bread. His tormenter is a rigid and pious piece of work named Javert (Russell Crowe). Valjean serves his sentence but is labeled “a dangerous man” and cannot find work. Rather than be resigned to his fate, he creates a new identity and a life for himself as a business owner and respected man about town.
One of his workers is a troubled young woman Fantine (Anne Hathaway) who must work to support her daughter Cosette. After an altercation at the factory, Fantine is fired by the foreman. Jean Valjean is preoccupied with concealing his identity after a visit from Javier and because of this poor Fantine is forced to work as a prostitute. When Valjean learns of this, he tries to help Fantine and care for her daughter. Unfortunately Fantine succumbs to the horrors around her and Valjean is exposed as a wanted fugitive forcing him to take Cossette to Paris and try and start a new life.
The film is broken up into two separate stories. The first is the tale of Jean Valjean, his descent into the gutter and his struggle to crawl out and make a life for himself. His journey is mirrored by Fantine who never manages to pull herself out of the hole she has plummeted into. The second half of the film introduces the idea of revolution into the story as all the characters are impacted by a burgeoning revolution as the poor of the city rise up to try and make a stand against their bourgeoisie oppressors.
Les Misérables is really interesting and the musical performances are impressive. The vast majority of the film are staged musical numbers. The actors often sing the songs in one long continuous take. I can’t remember a musical that felt like you were watching someone singing live instead of a recorded playback. The songs had the kind of live performance presence that separates the film from other musicals. The entire production feels like one big staged event. And I suppose that’s the best compliment I can pay the film and my biggest criticism. So much of Les Misérables feels unreal. There’s a lot of close ups and handheld camera work that seems intended to bring this grand tale down to earth. I would hardly call it ‘gritty realism’, but it felt like director Tom Hooper (The King’s Speech) wanted to make his version feel like an epic tale, but none of the locations feel like the real world. Everything feels like a soundstage or well-dressed set. Other pieces are so obviously green screened and special effects-enhanced eyesores. I couldn’t figure out if the goal was to make the movie look more like a theater or if it was merely a product of poor production design and lackluster virtual cinematography.
It’s unfortunate because at the heart of it all is a very good movie. There are wonderful performances from its cast, especially Hugh Jackman who is practically unrecognizable at the opening of the film. He plays Jean Valjean as the tragically, well intentioned soul trying hard to carve out a meaningful existence in an unfair world. This is easily the best performance I’ve even seen from Jackman who has finally found a cinematic role to showcase his stage chops. His role is far and away the best thing about Les Misérables. Anne Hathaway is equally compelling though relegated to a supporting role that might constitute fifteen minutes of total screen time. Her rendition of “I Dreamed a Dream” is a heartbreaking and emotionally stirring number that showcases the amazing depth and range that Hathaway is capable of.
Les Miserables often feels like a throwback to a more irony free, less cynical age of cinema. And I appreciated that. This is an unpretentious, earnest film. It doesn’t succeed on every level. There’s several scenes featuring Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter that feel almost separate from the rest of the movie, as if Hooper cribbed material from a Tim Burton film. The light hearted attempts at humor feel tonally at odds with the rest of the film. It’s difficult because every other part is so well cast. Both Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter feel like such tired, predictable choices that I found myself wishing they just weren’t in the movie at all. Still, I would recommend Les Misérables as a well-intentioned, earnest piece of musical cinema carried by a fabulous lead performance from Hugh Jackman.
Flickering Myth Rating: Film ★ ★ ★ / Movie ★ ★ ★ ★