Skip to comments.Les Miserables: Film Review (Well-sung but bombastic screen version of the musical perennial)
Posted on 12/17/2012 9:31:42 AM PST by SeekAndFind
Anne Hathaway, Hugh Jackman and Russell Crowe sing -- and wage a Sisyphean battle against musical diarrhea -- in Tom Hooper's adaptation of the stage sensation.
A gallery of stellar performers wages a Sisyphean battle against musical diarrhea and a laboriously repetitive visual approach in the big-screen version of the stage sensation Les Miserables. Victor Hugo's monumental 1862 novel about a decades-long manhunt, social inequality, family disruption, injustice and redemption started its musical life onstage in 1980 and has been around ever since, a history of success that bodes well for this lavish, star-laden film. But director Tom Hooper has turned the theatrical extravaganza into something that is far less about the rigors of existence in early 19th century France than it is about actors emoting mightily and singing their guts out. As the enduring success of this property has shown, there are large, emotionally susceptible segments of the population ready to swallow this sort of thing, but that doesn't mean it's good.
The first thing to know about this Les Miserables is that this creation of Claude-Michel Schonberg, Alain Boublil and Jean-Marc Natel, is, with momentary exceptions, entirely sung, more like an opera than a traditional stage musical. Although not terrible, the music soon begins to slur together to the point where you'd be willing to pay the ticket price all over again just to hear a nice, pithy dialogue exchange between Hugh Jackman and Russell Crowe rather than another noble song that sounds a lot like one you just heard a few minutes earlier. There were 49 identifiable musical numbers in the original show, and one more has been added here. Greatly compounding the problem is that director Hooper, in his first outing since conquering Hollywood two years ago with his breakthrough feature, The King's Speech, stages virtually every scene and song in the same manner, with the camera swooping in on the singer and thereafter covering him or her and any other participants with hovering tight shots; there hasn't been a major musical so fond of the close-up since Joshua Logan attempted to photograph Richard Harris' tonsils in Camelot. Almost any great musical one can think of features sequences shot in different ways, depending upon the nature of the music and the dramatic moment; for Hooper, all musical numbers warrant the same monotonous approach of shoving the camera right in the performer's face; any closer and their breath would fog the lens, as, in this instance, the actors commendably sang live during the shooting, rather than being prerecorded.
With Hooper's undoubted encouragement, the eager thespians give it their all here, for better and for worse. The live vocal performances provide an extra vibrancy and immediacy that is palpable, though one cannot say that the technique is necessarily superior in principle, as it was also used by Peter Bogdanovich on his famed folly, At Long Last Love.
One of the chief interests of the film is discovering the singing abilities of the notable actors assembled here, other than Jackman, whose musical prowess is well-known. Crowe, who early in his career starred in The Rocky Horror Show and other musicals onstage in Australia, has a fine, husky baritone, while Eddie Redmayne (Last seen in My Week with Marilyn) surprises with a singing voice of lovely clarity. Colm Wilkinson, the original Jean Valjean onstage in London and New York, turns up here as the benevolent Bishop of Digne.
On the female side, Anne Hathaway dominates the early going, belting out anguish as the doomed Fantine. These few minutes of heart breaking performance will boost her chances of winning the Best Supporting Actress trophy at the Golden Globes and Oscars. Playing her grown daughter Cosette, Amanda Seyfried delights with clear-as-a-bell high notes, while Samantha Barks, as a lovelorn Eponine, is a vocal powerhouse.
The problem, then, is not at all the singing itself but that the majority of the numbers are pitched at the same sonic-boom level and filmed the same way. The big occasion when Hooper tries something different, intercutting among nearly all the major characters at crossroads in the Act 1 climax "One Day More," feels like a pale imitation of the electrifying "Tonight" ensemble in the film version of West Side Story.
It's entirely possible that no book has been adapted more frequently to other media than Hugo's epic, one of the longest novels ever written. About 60 big- and small-screen versions have been made throughout the world, beginning with a representation by the Lumiere brothers in 1897, and Orson Welles did a seven-part radio version in 1937. In 1985, five years after the Paris debut of the French musical, the English-language production, with a new libretto by Herbert Kretzmer and directed by Trevor Nunn, opened in London, to less-than-stellar reviews, and is still playing. The New York counterpart packed houses from 1987-2003 and, at 6,680 performances, ranks as the third-longest-running musical in Broadway history (it reopened in 2006 and played another two years).
At the story's core is Jean Valjean (Jackman), a convict who has served 19 years for stealing a loaf of bread and trying to escape and, upon his release, redeems himself under a new identity as a wealthy factory owner and socially liberal mayor of Montreuil-sur-Mer. But his former prison guard Javert (Crowe), now a police inspector, finds him out and, over a period of 17 years, mercilessly hounds him until their day of reckoning on the barricades in Paris during the uprising of June 1832. Woven through it is no end of melodrama concerning Valjean raising Fantine's beautiful daughter Cosette (Isabelle Allen as a tyke, Seyfried as a young woman); the latter's star-crossed romance with Marius (Redmayne), a wealthy lad turned idealistic revolutionary; his handsome comrade-in-arms Enjolras (Aaron Tveit) and the earthy Eponine, who woefully accepts that her beloved Marius is besotted by Cosette. Well and truly having rumbled in from the film version of Sweeney Todd, Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen gallumph through as small-time swindlers in very broad comic relief.
Startlingly emaciated in his initial scenes while still on strenuous prison work detail, Jackman's Valjean subsequently cuts a more proper and dashing figure after his transformation into a gentleman. His defense of the abused Fantine and subsequent adoption of her daughter represent the fulcrum of Hugo's central theme that a man can change and redeem himself, as opposed to Jalvert's vehement conviction that once a criminal, always a criminal. The passions of all the characters are simple and deep, which accounts for much of the work's enduring popularity in all cultures.
But it also makes for a film that, when all the emotions are echoed out at an unvarying intensity for more than 2 1/2 hours on a giant screen, feels heavily, if soaringly, monotonous. Subtle and nuanced are two words that will never be used to describe this Les Miserables, which, for all its length, fails to adequately establish two critical emotional links: that between Valjean and Cosette, and the latter's mutual infatuation with Marius, which has no foundation at all.
Reuniting with his King's Speech cinematographer Danny Cohen and production designer Eve Stewart, Hooper has handsome interior sets at his disposal. However, with the exception of some French city square and street locations, the predominant exteriors have an obvious CGI look. His predilection for wide-angle shots is still evident, if more restrained than before, but the editing by Melanie Ann Oliver and Chris Dickens frequently seems haphazard; the musical numbers sometimes build to proper visual climaxes in union with the music, but as often as not the cutting seems almost arbitrary, moving from one close-up to another, so that scenes don't stand out but just mush together.
The actors are ideally cast but, with a couple of exceptions, give stage-sized turns for the screen; this bigness might well be widely admired. Jackman finally gets to show onscreen the musical talents that have long thrilled live musical theater audiences, Hathaway gamely gets down and dirty and has her hair clipped off onscreen in the bargain, and Redmayne impresses as a high-caliber singing leading man, but there is little else that is inventive or surprising about the performances. Still, there is widespread energy, passion and commitment to the cause, which for some might be all that is required.
But is it more awesome than “Paint Your Wagon”?
Les Miserables with Clint Eastwood as Javert and Lee Marvin as Jean Valjean. Clint sings while holding a single shot pistol on Jean Valjean "I know what you're thinking. 'Did he fire one shot or zero'? Well to tell you the truth, in all this excitement, I kind of lost track myself."
Very funny. But here is the trailer for those who want to see it:
Hated just hated the stage version of this lousy Brit musical. And what I’ve seen of the movie version? Hugh Jackman is NOT aging well.
I found myself inferring that this operatic version was going to beef up the impact of the good Catholic Bishop in ValJean’s life course. I hope that proves correct. The Christian life lessons could use a more truthful approach out of Hollywood.
It is an over blown show about a very evil event.
RE: I found myself inferring that this operatic version was going to beef up the impact of the good Catholic Bishop in ValJeans life course
The man who plays the Bishop on this film is none other than the original Jean Valjean on stage — Colm Wilkinson.
I went to see a stage version in Hollywood some time back ... and walked out ... during their perversion of the wedding scene.
I hate musicals. Needless to say, I would have seen this movie if not for that fact.
Yes, read the real history of the French Revolution. It was an evil event.
RE: It is an over blown show about a very evil event.
You mean the students who were killed in the barricades were the 19th century version of Occupy Wall Street? :)
From the little bit I heard in the trailer, Russell Crowe is no Philip Quast. But I congratulate him for trying anyway...
RE: I hate musicals.
So, the “Sound of Music”, the “King and I”, “My Fair Lady”, etc. are not for you?
This was based on the June Rebellion of 1832, but had all the charming characteristics of the Revolution and the later Paris Commune. Those French really have a bad default setting for this sort of thing.
Its not a Brit musical, its a French one that has been translated into English.
The French Revolution took place well before the events of Les Miserables. The barricade scenes are during the June 1932 revolt in Paris.
My introduction to Les Miserables w as on stage in Boston. I was enraptured by the stage version. I watched TCM present three back to back screen versions a few nights ago and loved even the black and white rendering of this awesome story.
EWTN has presented a couple of programs on the new movie that made me believe it to be well worth seeing again. I hope the operatics don’t get entirely lost on the audience’s appreciation of a classic story of Good and Evil, virtue and vice. We are so lacking for healthy lessons at the movies.
As I told my wife when we saw the previews for the first time in the theater, “I’ll be washing my hair that night”.
I think I have more interest in watching a slasher film than this piece of pickled tripe.
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