Review: Les Miserables
PLOT: LES MISÉRABLES is the epic motion picture of the popular musical based on Victor Hugo’s French historical novel of the same name. The story of two men on opposite sides of the law in a poverty stricken land presents itself as an ambitious story that spans several decades. Is this musical larger than life, or far too intimate for its own good? Read on…
After spending nineteen years in prison for the crime of stealing bread to feed his family, Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) is finally set free. Even still, the officer in charge of the prisoner bears no sympathy for the man he considers a heathen. Officer Javert (Russell Crowe) releases Jean Valjean but labels him a danger to society and places the convict on parole. Now considering the fact he only stole a loaf of bread to feed his starving family, I already despise this Javert fellow.
While making his way in the world, Valjean is treated with animosity by everyone he meets. Desperate, he ends up stealing from the one person that showed him pity. However, the kindly priest has great sympathy for Valjean and lets him go with several pricey artifacts so he can start a new life without the label given to him by Javert.
Years later he has made a new life for himself, with a new identity, Monsieur Madeleine, and a new position as a factory owner and Mayor of Montreuil-sur-Mer. He himself lends his kindness to one of his factory workers, a girl named Fantine (Anne Hathaway) after he realizes she had been fired for ridiculous circumstances without his knowledge. He re-discovers her when she is about to be arrested for assaulting a client while working as a prostitute. This is where she begs him to take pity and help her daughter whom she sends all her money to. At the time, her sweet young daughter is locked away with an evil Innkeeper and his wife (Sascha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter).
That not-so-brief description is only the beginning, as LES MISÉRABLES is a sprawling and massively epic tale of brotherhood, revenge and of course romance. And for those of you wondering, it is a musical in the truest sense of the word. There is nary a moment that dialogue isn’t sung or music isn’t swelling in the background. For those unfamiliar with this particular play, the music tells the story on every level. Whenever a character is feeling any single emotion, it will be sung about. If they must make some sort of decision on what is to be done, it will be the lyrics that reveal their plan. So if that sounds like something you might not enjoy, for heaven’s sake don’t bother.
For me, I had expected this to be a larger-than-life cinematic experience. While I’m not a musical connoisseur (not even close), I do appreciate something that moves me and takes me to another place which music can certainly do in the realm of film (and of course theatre). That being said, the opening sequence of several prisoners working as slaves pulling a massive ship into the dock was certainly magnificent. Soon however, it is clear that director Tom Hooper (THE KING’S SPEECH) had a different idea entirely when it came to bringing this musical to the silver screen.
With so many amazing set pieces and this massive cast, Hooper came up with a risky approach. Nearly every single moment in LES MISÉRABLES is a close-up or a medium shot. Never mind the scope of the decade spanning musical as the director went for the gesture or the tear. In what is far and away the most powerful scene, Fantine (beautifully portrayed by Hathaway) sings “I Dreamed a Dream” in what is one of the most emotionally charged cinematic moments of the year. Yet when he moved in close for the duet “In My Life/A Heart Full of Love” with Cosette and Marius (Amanda Seyfried and Eddie Redmayne) it lacks the unbridled passion presented by Ms. Hathaway.
The actors here all sang live as they shot the film which can be a mixed blessing as a few of the cast members can’t carry a tune quite as well as others. However, the little moments where Hugh Jackman or Anne Hathaway tear up and choke just a little bit, adds a world of passion to the non-lip-synced songs. The imperfection gives a layer of depth that it might not have had before. Many critics have attacked Russell Crowe’s singing – the actor is actually in a band called Thirty Odd Foot of Grunt so he is no stranger to music – and yes, it is not always up to par for this particular role. However, he and Jackman work well enough as lifelong enemies on opposite sides of the law make it work. But I still have to say… Come on man, get over it, the guy already spent 19 years doing hard labor for a frickin’ loaf of bread! Get the f*ck over it Javert! And yes, I do realize it is a different time and place, but damn Javert pissed me off.
My appreciation for LES MISÉRABLES as it was presented was an ebb and flow of emotion. The lack of scale at times frustrated me as I wanted to be overwhelmed by this story. Then again, out of nowhere, there would be a moment so pure and monumental that I’d connect instantly to its intimacy. In the end I connected very deeply to Hooper’s strangely compelling vision. The performances were uniformly strong, even if Crowe’s voice wasn’t necessarily the right fit for this type of musical. The themes of death, hope and the struggle to simply survive what these characters had to go through ultimately won me over.
On a final note, there is an irony that the two performances that really stand out are supporting roles with little screen time in this over two and a half hour long epic. Samantha Banks as Éponine is a major find. The actress has played the role on stage and it is clear that her transition to film was perfect. She is simply wonderful. And then there is Anne Hathaway. Yes, she is every bit as good as you’ve heard before. This is not only the best performance in the film, but one of the finest performances of the year. She will break your heart as Fantine. Can a single actor make a film that much more powerful? This one did it for me. Just give her the Academy Award now because this rich, emotional and devastating powerful performance deserves it.
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