Film Review – Les Misérables
The last time we saw director Tom Hooper, he was accepting an Oscar for his work on The King’s Speech (2010). It would go without saying that his next project would come with some anticipation. Boy, did he pick an ambitious one with Les Misérables, one of the most famous stories ever written. Based on the popular musical, and adapted from the classic novel by Victor Hugo, this is a big, bold tale of redemption, obsession, kindness, and love. So big, perhaps, that Hooper’s earnest intentions may have exceeded his reach. There is a lot to admire here, and moments that can leave an audience utterly speechless. But at the same time, the great pieces didn’t quite fit together to make a perfect whole. As much as I wanted to love this movie, I never got that feeling in my spine when seeing a film go above my expectations.
Musical lovers will be glad to learn that this is set as an operetta, meaning that all of the dialogue is sung throughout. I had no problem with this, and even enjoyed seeing the characters expressing their thoughts and feelings through song. Much has been made of the fact that Hooper recorded the vocals live on set, so the voices you hear are coming from the very same performances you’re seeing on screen. This is a daring choice, as most musicals record the vocals first and then sync it to the performances afterwards. Singing and acting at the same time gives the actors a different dimension. There is a certain kind of urgency about them; I cared less about how well they sang and focused more on the feeling behind their delivery. Anne Hathaway’s heart-breaking rendition of “I Dreamed a Dream” is all the more powerful because of it.
The world is 19th century France, near the beginning of the French Revolution. Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) is a petty thief, who spent an incredible nineteen years in hard labor for stealing a loaf of bread. After being released and aided by a kind priest, Valjean makes it his goal to turn his life around, to lose his old self and become someone better. He drops his identity, and later moves up to even become the mayor of his own town. But hot on his heels is the ruthless policeman Javert (Russell Crowe), who has spent years obsessively chasing Valjean for breaking his parole.
At the same time, we meet Fantine (Anne Hathaway), a poor worker in one of Valjean’s factories. After a terrible incident involving some of her coworkers, Fantine is thrown out on the street without a penny to her name. This couldn’t have happened at a worse time, being that Fantine has a young daughter to care for. I won’t delve deeply into what happens to her, but if you are already familiar with the story then you are aware of the dark places Fantine goes to support her child. Her ultimate fate, and Valjean’s sudden realization of who she is and why he decides to help her and her daughter, plays as the major deciding factor setting the path for the rest of the characters along the way.
What I just described to you happens in the first half of the film, and without question it is where Hooper hits his highest marks. At the middle point, we take a big turn, and whatever momentum was built gets dissipated. New characters and plot threads are introduced, including a love triangle between an adult Cosette (Amanda Seyfried), her love interest Marius (Eddie Redmayne), and Eponine (Samantha Barks), a young woman secretly in love with Marius as well. There’s also the introduction of the Thenardiers (Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter), owners of a local whorehouse, as well as the start of the Revolution, in which Marius plays a key role. I have no doubt that these are crucial in the novel and in the stage production, but there wasn’t enough development in the film for me to get fully invested. I had little interest in Cosette’s and Marius’s love story, or in the battle between French troops and rebels. Every time we are presented with these scenes, I wondered when we would get back to the original storylines. The rivalry between Valjean and Javert, and Valjean’s oath to Fantine are easily the strongest parts, and affected me the most.
Les Misérables is all about kindness in the face of extreme desperation. One good act can lead to another, and in the end countless people can be changed for the better. In general, Hooper and his team accomplished what they set out to do. All the performances are excellent (especially Jackman and Hathaway, whom I’m sure will get critical recognition), the direction steady and true, and the production design impressive. I would even say the intentional comedy works, as well. So why am I not completely satisfied? Because the establishing scenes do such a good job of setting up the major characters and their dynamics that all the secondary facets seem exactly as described: merely secondary.
Final Grade: B+