Les Miserables (2012)


Russell Crowe and Hugh Jackman face off.

Russell Crowe and Hugh Jackman face off.

(2012) Musical (Universal) Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, Amanda Seyfried, Anne Hathaway, Eddie Redmayne, Sacha Baron Cohen, Helena Bonham Carter, Samantha Barks, Aaron Tveit, Daniel Huttlestone, Colm Wilkinson, Michael Jibson, Isabelle Allen, Charlotte Spencer. Directed by Tom Hooper

As a nation we love musicals. There’s something about the scope of them, the music, the spectacle that we just connect with. We love seeing them on Broadway but we also love seeing them in the movie theater. However, not all musicals translate well to the big screen.

Most folks are aware that this is based on the classic 1862 Victor Hugo novel and was adapted for the French stage by Claude-Michel Schonberg and Alain Boublil and later for English audiences at the West End by lyricist Herbert Kretzmer. It was a big hit on the Broadway stage in the 80s and won eight Tony awards in 1987.

The film production was taken up by Oscar-winning director Tom Hooper (The King’s Speech) and boasts an all-star cast. The story concerns Jean Valjean (Jackman), arrested for stealing bread and serving a 19-year sentence for daring to feed his starving family. Released, he seems destined for a life of further crime as nobody will hire him since his papers identify him as a dangerous ex-convict. But an act of charity by the Bishop of Digne (Wilkinson) turns his outlook around. He realizes that in order to become the good man he once was, he must break parole and begin fresh.

That puts the obsessive Inspector Javert (Crowe) on his tail. Javert looks at the law as something of black and white, with those who commit crimes as criminals who can never change their natures. He sees Valjean as nothing more than a common criminal whose lot in life is to steal.

Valjean becomes a successful mill owner and becomes mayor of a small French provincial town. One of his employees is Fantine (Hathaway), a beautiful woman who rejects the advances of the lecherous Foreman (Jibson) and whose pay mostly goes to support her daughter Cosette (Allen) who is being looked after by the innkeeper Thenardier (Cohen) and his wife (Carter). The other women of the factory, jealous of her looks, get wind of her daughter and this gives the Foreman an excuse to fire her.

Fantine becomes immediately destitute, selling her hair, her teeth and eventually, her sex. She gets very ill and Valjean witnesses a client threatening to beat her up after she fends off his unwelcome advances. He sees that she is taken to the hospital and promises to send for Cosette. However he has something else to worry about; it seems that Jean Valjean has been caught – at least, someone who has been accused of being him and it appears that someone else will be going back to jail in his stead. This would appear to be the perfect solution but Valjean’s conscience can’t allow it so he goes to the trial and confesses. He leaves to go clear up his affairs, intending to surrender himself to Javert but he witnesses Fantine’s death and goes to fetch Cosette who now has nobody. He knows only he can save her from a life of abuse and takes her away from the Thenardiers, paying them 1500 francs to do so. Valjean and Cosette barely escape Javert and make their way to Paris.

There once again Valjean becomes prosperous and Cosette, now a beautiful young woman (Seyfried) has attracted the eye of Marius (Redmayne), a fervent young revolutionary who is the son of a wealthy man. Cosette falls deeply for Marius but he and his fellow revolutionaries led by the charismatic Enjolras (Tveit). The coming battle looks to be a slaughter of the revolutionaries and Valjean, who realizes Javert has spotted him again, knows that fleeing Paris would be the sensible thing to do but it would break Cosette’s heart.

One of the advantages that a film has is that it can put a more three dimensional feel to the story. A play is limited to the area of the stage; film can go on location or create landscapes of its own. A good translation won’t feel staged or confined. Oddly, that happens a lot here despite the often epic vistas.

One of the big problems I’ve had with Les Mis all along (and I know that this is sacrilegious) is that it’s too ambitious. Nearly every line is sung to the point where you long for some dialogue (there are a few lines here and there but not much) and quite frankly, the music doesn’t hold up for an entire two and a half hour long movie. A good deal of it is mediocre although there are several songs that are amazing (“Who Am I” and “I Dreamed a Dream” among them). This is more of an opera than a musical in that sense.

The performances here are pretty strong. Hathaway has justly received notice as delivering an Oscar-worthy performance and it seems a lock that she’ll get a best supporting actress nomination and most likely the win. The tortured and abused Fantine is a role that demands a great deal of the actress playing her and certainly Hathaway gives it everything she’s got and more.

Jackman does a pretty fine job as well. This is one of his finest performances ever. Having started out as a song and dance man, he should be a slam dunk for this but a tiny little complaint – I think that the key is just about on the high end of his range. It would have behooved the music director to move it down a couple of keys so that they could have gotten a better benefit of Jackman’s vocals.

Crowe has a nice voice but he almost seems to be in a different movie. He’s extremely low-key and doesn’t really pull off the obsessive quality of Javert. He’s a little too stoic here and the part really calls for someone who unravels and that just isn’t Crowe. He does a decent enough job however. Cohen and Carter (which sounds a bit like the name of a law firm) do reasonably well as the comic relief.

This might have been an excellent movie had this not been a musical/opera hybrid. A little more dialogue would have made it more palatable. This is a very emotional movie that requires little manipulation to get your tear ducts working overtime. That it’s sad is a given; the title is, after all, “The Miserable.” But be that as it may, there are some fine performances, enough to recommend the film but don’t go in there expecting the movie of the year. It certainly isn’t that.

REASONS TO GO: Some really amazing performances, particularly from Hathaway and Jackman. Nice comic relief from Cohen and Carter.

REASONS TO STAY: Too much singing for music that doesn’t hold up throughout. A little stage-y in places.

FAMILY VALUES:  There is a suggestion of sexuality, some violence and adult themes. This isn’t a Disney musical folks; there’s some real suffering going on here.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Both Seyfried and Hathaway have sung with Jackman at the Academy Awards, although on separate occasions.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/31/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 71% positive reviews. Metacritic: 64/100. The reviews seem to be pretty mixed but leaning somewhat towards the positive.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Chicago

WEST END LOVERS: Many of the extras and small parts in the film are played by West End veterans, many of whom have appeared in the West End version of Les Mis.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT; Cirque du Soleil Worlds Away

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