Film Review: Les Misérables

by Jason LeRoy on December 24, 2012

Les-Mis-Hathaway-Jackman

starring: Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, Anne Hathaway, Eddie Redmayne, Samantha Barks, Amanda Seyfried, Sacha Baron Cohen, Helena Bonham Carter, Aaron Tveit

screenplay by: William Nicholson

directed by: Tom Hooper

MPAA: Rated PG-13 for suggestive and sexual material, violence and thematic elements

It is difficult to imagine a better film version of the beloved musical Les Misérables than this one. Directed with restraint and refinement by Tom Hooper (fresh from his Best Director Oscar for The King’s Speech), this is an emotionally resonant and powerfully acted experience that serves us operatic high drama grounded in social realism. Hooper’s direction truly makes all the difference, both in the performances he extracts from his impeccable cast as well as his naturalistic camera, zooming in tight on his actors’ faces as they explode with feeling while capturing the unfettered grime and grit of life in 19th century French slums.

We are treated to the film’s most bombastic sequence right at the top, opening on an underwater shot of a tattered French flag floating on the ocean’s surface, then soaring into the air to reveal a fleet of storm-tossed ships full of laboring prisoners. One such prisoner is Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman), who is serving his last day of a nearly twenty-year sentence for stealing a loaf of bread. He is watched hawkishly by Inspector Javert (Russell Crowe, bravely risking mockery with his allegedly “rock” bellow), who gets off on ensuring that prisoners are punished to the fullest extent of the law. Javert has a particular disdain for Valjean and believes the “full extent of the law” should last far beyond his imprisonment; as Valjean prepares to reenter the world, Javert utterly damns him by sentencing him to lifelong parole and branding him “dangerous” on his paperwork, profoundly limiting his employment opportunities.

Unable to find work and trampled at every turn, Valjean begins to believe there will be no second chance for him. Then, unexpectedly, he is happened upon by a priest who offers him food and shelter in his small country church. Valjean is distrustful of this kindness and, in desperation, absconds with the church silver in the middle of the night. But when he is arrested and dragged back to the church, not only does the priest tell the officers he gave Valjean the silver, but offers him the candlesticks as well. This act of radical grace shakes Valjean to his core, and he vows right then and there to start a new life for himself. We jump ahead several years and learn that Valjean has successfully reinvented himself as a pillar of society, with a new name and no ties to his former life. But Javert has never stopped looking for him, and when he pays Valjean an unexpected visit (but does not recognize him) in the factory he owns, Valjean becomes too distracted and fearful to realize that a terrible injustice is being done to one of his employees. Fantine (Anne Hathaway) is a seamstress who, having been abandoned by her husband, is working to provide money for her young daughter Cosette. While Valjean is preoccupied with Javert, Fantine is unfairly attacked by her hatchet-faced coworkers and fired by the lecherous shift manager. She is soon living on the streets, selling her hair, teeth, and ladyparts to support her daughter.

When Valjean learns what has happened, he vows to find Cosette and devote himself to giving her the kind of life of which her mother had, you know, dreamed a dream. He discovers that she’s been left in the grotesque care of two swindling tavern owners (Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter, lifted nearly wholesale from their roles in Sweeney Todd, briefly transforming the film into a broad Tim Burton comedy). Cosette has been languishing in squalor while their own daughter, Eponine, is lavished with affection. Valjean bribes them into releasing Cosette into his care, and raises her into an impossibly beautiful and radiant young woman (Amanda Seyfried). Meanwhile, Eponine (Samantha Barks) has inherited her parents’ poverty and pines hopelessly for Marius (Eddie Redmayne), a wealthy young man who cast off his privilege to help start the next French uprising alongside Enjolras (the heavenly Aaron Tveit). But it’s love at first sight when Marius and Cosette see one another, and Eponine feels she has no choice but to disguise herself as a man and join Marius in the revolution. Meanwhile, Javert is once again hot on the trail of Valjean, who continues his single-minded commitment to giving Cosette a happy life.

If big emotions are your favorite part of musical theater, you will be pleased by Tom Hooper’s approach to the musical sequences. Rather than sweeping camera work and flashy editing, Hooper films many of the songs (particularly the solos) in intimate close-ups with a minimum of edits. He has also taken the radical and very rewarding step of recording his actors singing live rather than lip-synching to studio recordings; purists and perfectionists may balk at the subsequent vocal imperfections, but those people should shut up. It is a remarkable thing to be right in the actors’ faces, watching in soul-revealing detail as they are wracked with…well, usually pain. The results are often breathtaking, particularly Jackman’s searing “Valjean’s Soliloquy” (his finest film work yet), Barks’ poignant “On My Own,” Redmayne’s devastating “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables,” and most notably, Hathaway’s Oscar moment, “I Dreamed A Dream,” filmed in a stationary closeup in a single unbroken take. As with Jennifer Hudson in Dreamgirls, Hathaway seems primed to win Best Supporting Actress for a decent dramatic performance that benefits from one absolutely heart-stopping musical number.

Sadly, Les Misérables isn’t uniformly effective; it never quite overcomes the Cosette Problem. As positioned by the plot, Cosette is ostensibly the most important character in the story. She is the core motivation for at least three of its principal characters, and much of the story hinges on her happiness. And yet Cosette is essentially a non-character that we cease caring about the moment we see her as an adult. This isn’t really Seyfried’s fault, who prettily trills and pouts her way through her second adequate big-screen musical performance. But still, she just isn’t sympathetic. We don’t root for Cosette — we root for our girl Eponine, who loses her unrequited crush to Cosette’s porcelain doll charms. This is why Fantine and Valjean sacrificed so much? So Cosette coud swan around in a bonnet and ruin Eponine’s life? And Barks is so effortlessly endearing that Cosette comes off even worse. Eponine’s big musical number may be “On My Own,” but I’m hoping there’s a deleted musical number called “Prissy Bitch (Ain’t Got Shit On Me).”

There’s something about the holiday season that seems to lend itself to lushly emotional musicals; maybe because this is the time of year where larger-than-life feelings and cornball sentiment are openly encouraged. But beyond that, Les Misérables is a perfect allegory for (apologies in advance for the rest of this paragraph) the true meaning of Christmas. It is the most poetic yet teachable illustration of grace to ever seep into mainstream pop culture; I can think of no better symbol for the story at the heart of Christmas than the priest giving Valjean his life back. Valjean’s life is renewed by receiving a gift he did not earn, and he chooses to allow his life to be transformed by that gift. He understands the value of what he has received, and is dedicated to giving to others as was given to him. In this sense, Les Misérables really is the perfect Christmas musical.

Les Misérables opens nationwide on Dec. 25.

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{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Gordon Elgart December 26, 2012 at 11:21 pm

The “Cosette” problem goes all the way back to the musical. Everyone roots for Eponine. I think that’s even the point. I’m a Les Miz junkie going back to my high school days singing along to the Broadway recording in my car, and I have four problems with this movie, some bigger than others:

1. Russell Crowe is terrible as Javert. Fucking terrible. He’s stiff and can’t sing the part worth a damn.

2. They changed some of the lyrics. This wasn’t annoying in itself, but seemed unnecessary. It’s supposed to be “bought your soul for God,” not “saved your soul.” And Colm Wilkinson (the original Jean Valjean), who plays the priest here, ought to know better. They even had to change one of the great bits of “Red & Black,” where Marius says “Black, the color of her hair” because they couldn’t be bothered to cast a girl with black hair or dye the hair of the girl they did cast. Eponine’s supposed to the blonde, damn’t.

3. I disliked the overdramatic singing style. The directing choice you praised is the one I liked least. The songs themselves have emotion, and the characters do not need to cry through the song — for me it took emotion out of the scene as opposed to adding it. It’s like saying, “Fuck you musicals. We’re movies. Deal with it.” (That said, Anne Hathaway doing “I Dreamed a Dream?” Give me some tissues!)

4. Russell Crowe was fucking terrible. There are so many actors out there who can really sing that the decision to cast him puts a pall over the entire movie. He’s so bad that I am now actively rooting against this movie to win Best Picture, something I did for the last Tom Hooper movie, too, because The Social Network is my jam.

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Jason LeRoy December 26, 2012 at 11:45 pm

Full disclosure: I’d never seen the musical prior to watching the movie. With that said, why would the point be to root against Cosette? Are we supposed to dislike her and think Valjean and Fantine wasted their sacrifices? I get that Eponine is obviously supposed to be sympathetic, but I don’t think they succeed in making Cosette seem in any way redeemable or worthy, while at the same time failing to mark her negatively if we’re meant to view her as spoiled or entitled.

I didn’t think Russell Crowe’s acting was terrible, although his singing is certainly awkward. Hooper’s overall vision seemed to value singing prowess far below acting skill, so it’s not surprising. Are you saying they changed the priest’s lyric from “bought” to “saved”? Because the “for God” is still in it.

Clearly I disagree about the singing style being overdramatic; I found it a very innovative way to combine the power of live theater with the intimacy of screen acting. If you liked Hathaway’s big scene, which ones didn’t you like? And as for Eponine’s hair being the wrong color, Samantha Barks is the only member of the cast who’s actually played her role on stage, so I think she still owns the role pretty well.

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Gordon Elgart December 27, 2012 at 1:05 am

It’s not that we root against Cosette, it’s that we’re meant to relate to the unrequited love story because It’s just better dramatically. You’ll find that most people who see the show are on Team Eponine. She also gets a big song; in fact, I saw Debbie Gibson sing it once as Eponine.

Yes, they changed from “bought” to “saved” and the rest is the same (not ecxactly the same — some of the other parts of that song are different). The hair color change is annoying, only because it made them change a key lyric from a key song.

Specifically, Hugh Jackman got weird with his pacing. Yes, I know he did it on purpose, but I still didn’t like it. There’s some crying bits in Eponine’s songs that aren’t there in the show. When Cosette whispers “Cosette, I love you very much” during “Castle in a Cloud,” I winced, too. Not movie breaking moments, but something I would have done differently were I in charge.

And it’s a crime against the musical to have someone as crappy as Russell Crowe singing those parts. Just listen to Terrence Mann as Javert on the original recording, and you’ll hear what he’s supposed to sound like. You might be all, like, woah.

This is a good version of the musical, but my intense fandom of the “original” text makes it impossible for me to judge it as a movie. I’ll trust your opinion on that one.

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Dakin Hardwick January 1, 2013 at 10:07 pm

Gordon, we are going to have to agree to disagree on Russell Crowe. Yes, he’s not a fantastic singer. Would Javert been a great singer? Unlikely. What Russell Crowe did pull off, and I didn’t expect this out of him, is that he managed to pull off one of those most morally complex characters in media. Javert is supposed to be wooden! His entire life is his unilateral view of the law. He was brilliant and chilling in that role.

I felt this film had two weaknesses, and they are both actresses that I usually like: Anne Hathaway and Amanda Seyfried. Neither of them were especially believable. Hathaway was far more “wooden” than Crowe, and I just didn’t really sense her pain, and I really didn’t feel her connection to her daughter. Seyfried’s vocals were the only vocals that bothered me. She was just a little bit sharp, and it bothered me.

That being said, I agree with Jason about the singing. I believe the goal was to make a movie musical that felt real, where the songs aren’t big, broad displays for connecting to the people in back of a big theater. I really liked that all the songs felt like they were the real voices of the characters, not the technically precise singing that you get with professional theater.

Also: the only time I got to see Les Miz live, Eponine was a brunette. In the Les Miz “Dream Cast” DVD, Eponine was played by Lea Salonga, also a brunette. Even the original Eponine, Marie-France Dufour, was brunette.

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