Film Review: Les Misérables (Universal Pictures)

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Anne Hathaway in a scene from Tom Hooper's adaptation of Les Misérables.  Hathaway delivers one of the most emotionally stunning performances I've ever seen in the film.

Anne Hathaway in a scene from Tom Hooper’s adaptation of Les Misérables. Hathaway delivers one of the most emotionally stunning performances I’ve ever seen in the film.

by Rock ‘n Roll Ghost

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Les Misérables was not a film I ever figured I’d go and see, let alone want to.  It was not at all on my radar and I was already annoyed by the fact that it most certainly would see a lot of award attention only because I tend to despise musicals.  While Joseph Gordon-Levitt breaking into Hall & Oates‘ “You Make My Dreams Come True” in (500) Days of Summer brought a smile to my face, and Baz Luhrmann‘s Moulin Rouge delighted me to no end by breathing fresh life into a very tired genre, all the while having a very modern feel, Les Misérables, I thought, would be a dreadful bore.

All of that changed with a visit to a local Regal theater.  My wife and I were there to see Skyfall and, during the previews, this featurette on Les Misérables was shown:

les miserables movie posterAnd the two of us were both floored by it.  What a refreshing take on a rather stuffy, out of time (any time I consider anything by Andrew Lloyd Webber I want to vomit) story.  Director Tom Hooper (an Oscar winner for The King’s Speech) seemed to get the grit, the grime and the despair right for the story.  There would be no fluffiness, no coddling, no silliness it seemed.  And then there is the part in the clip with Anne Hathaway as Fantine, at the characters’ lowest possible point, with such deep sadness, singing “I Dreamed A Dream” in a way that just stopped me in my tracks and almost made me cry right then and there.  I turned to my wife and told her we have to see this film and she agreed.

We went to a screening at the end of November, a full month ahead of its release – always a thrill no matter how long I do this sort of thing.  An even bigger thrill was to be had afterwards, as Les Misérables co-stars Eddie Redmayne (Marius) and Samantha Barks (Éponine) were in attendance for a Q&A.  Now I didn’t know either’s work (Redmayne’s biggest role to date was in the film My Week With Marilyn and he is rumored to be in the running for the role of Star-Lord in James Gunn‘s adaptation of Marvel‘s Guardians of the Galaxy and Barks had been in the London production of Les Misérables, again as Éponine), but there was this odd feeling inside of me, almost giddiness, at their presence.

Anne Hathaway stars in Les Misérables.

Anne Hathaway stars in Les Misérables.

But that’s a sidenote to the film, of course.  Starting out grand and sweeping, we see Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) in a ship’s docks along with hundreds of other convicts, pulling in a ship while Inspector Javert (Russell Crowe) watches.  Jackman is scuzzed up to great effect here – scraggly beard, gaunt appearance and weathered, beaten eyes.  Valjean is paroled and winds his way along hard terrain until reaching a church whose priest takes pity on him, even lying to the constables after Valjean has been caught with silver and gold stolen from the church.  This act of kindness allows Valjean the means to change his life and make a positive impact on others.  But it seems as if his good deeds are not enough to clear the spiritual debt he owes.

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Hugh Jackman stars in Tom Hooper’s adaptation of Les Misérables, in theaters December 25.

Russell Crowe stars as Javert in Les Misérables (photo courtesy of Vogue)

Russell Crowe stars as Javert in Les Misérables (photo courtesy of Vogue)

Javert shows up in the city that Valjean, now a kindly business owner, has taken residence in.  Javert thinks he recognizes Valjean while watching the man straining to lift a cart off of an injured man beneath it.  Javert investigates Valjean until a man comes forward to claim that he is, in fact, Valjean and will gladly return to prison.  Valjean’s conscience cannot handle the idea of an innocent man paying his debt of breaking parole (the initial crime was for stealing bread) and he comes forward, but needs to take care of one thing first.

Fantine works at Valjean’s shop until getting into a confrontation with the other women and then assaulting the manager, who throws her out on the streets.  Fantine’s downward spiral continues until her hair is cut and sold and she prostitute’s herself to continue sending money to an innkeeper who watches over her daughter.  It’s here where Hathaway stops the audience cold with her river of tears inducing rendition of “I Dreamed a Dream”.  The consensus is that Hathaway is a lock for best supporting actress at the Oscars this year.  I won’t disagree with that and will back it up by saying it’s more than deserved.

Valjean finds Fantine, in the throes of what can be assumed to be pneumonia (scratch that, turns out its tuberculosis) and whisks her to the hospital, promising her that he will take care of her daughter, Cosette.  Javert appears and, after a bit of a tussle, Valjean escapes, making his way to take Cosette away from the hilariously gross and conniving innkeeper and his wife (played by Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter).

Hugh Jackman stars in Les Misérables.

Hugh Jackman stars in Les Misérables.

In the film’s sole light hearted moment, the set piece of “Master of the House”, featuring Cohen and Carter, brings a certain amount of levity to what had been a grim opening.  Sadly, what follows is a bit of  a let down, despite never stopping for a moment to be visually appealing.  Hooper’s film is rich in design and feels absolutely correct in every frame.  Thought filmed mostly on sets it never feels that way.  There’s been a lot of care to reach authenticity here.

As for the decision to have 99.9% of the dialogue sung I have to admit that, while I commend Hooper’s initiative, it gets a bit weary as time goes on.  I could have used 40% less singing myself as well as tightening of the film’s middle.  I will also admit that I’ve never seen any incarnation of Les Misérables of any kind, stage or filmed, nor have I read Victor Hugo’s novel.  So in that regard the story surprised me more and moved me more, probably allowing me a better viewing experience as, from what I’ve read, Hooper’s vision is radical to the previous incarnations and may be heresy to some.

Eddie Redmayne and Samantha Barks co-star in Les Misérables.

Eddie Redmayne and Samantha Barks co-star in Les Misérables.

But I can’t forgive the fact that Valjean, ostensibly the main character, shrinks a great deal in presence and in stature in the film’s middle act, despite Jackman giving his strongest performance in memory (I like Jackman a lot and, at times during the film, particularly the first half I was enthralled by his performance, but I can’t imagine I’ll ever say he’s anything more than a good “star” and an good actor, he’s never managed to compel me to think more of him, though I was hoping this would be the role).  As the film decides to follow Marius (Redmayne), a rich boy looking to make his own way in life by throwing his lot in with the urchins’ pursuit of La Révolution, the film begins to sag.  Once Marius sees Cosette (played as a young adult by Amanda Seyfried), the revolution gets pushed down a rung.  Sure Marius struggles with his desire for change and his love for Cosette (the idea of instantaneous love is still a hard pill to swallow, film world or not), but it’s obvious the boy is all in on one side.

As I said, overall this is a stunning picture.  I admire Hooper’s balls in having all of the actors sing live, admire the jarring cinematography (there’s a restlessness and an immediacy that pulls the viewer in, or, at the very least, will keep those less interested in musicals awake), loved Hathaway, admired the scope as well as the intimacy created by Hooper, the actors and the set designers, and I have made the statement that I would see the film again simply because I admire the passion put into the film.  It’s a bold film, an emotional one that is recommended to see because of its greatness and because of its flaws.  I commend Hooper’s choices even if they don’t always work, simply because he went for it.  But the nagging feeling I had of being a bit worn out by Hooper’s take on the material has not left me since seeing it a month ago and I have to imagine that there will be a lot of attendees feeling even woozier than I afterwards.  Then again, this could be this generation’s Titanic and I could just be wrong.  Either way, go see Les Misérables.  It’s not going to be for everyone, but it’s a film that I feel needs to be seen.  I realize this review was all over the place in its praise and in its criticisms, but trust me on this one.

Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen co-star in Les Misérables.

Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen co-star in Les Misérables (photo courtesy of Vogue).

 

 

Official Les Misérables Website

 

 

 

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