2 out of 5– With all the subtlety of a hammer, Les Misérables does little to bring us into its world of post-revolutionary France. The songs are overly sombre and self-serious, the lyrics simplistic and often plain nonsensical, and the actors chosen, for the most part, cannot sing. At 140 minutes in length, Les Misérables is flabby and self-indulgent.
One of the most popular musicals ever produced, Les Misérables is originally based on one of the great novels of the 19th century by Victor Hugo. After popular runs in Broadway and internationally, an adaptation of the novel, but not the musical, came and went in 1998 starring Liam Neeson, Geoffrey Rush and Uma Thurman. This new version of Les Misérables is the first to adapt the musical for the big screen. As of January 17th, it has been nominated for 8 Academy Awards, including Actor in a Leading Role (Hugh Jackman), Actress in a Supporting Role (Anne Hathaway), and Best Picture.
What’s it about?
The story follows the plight of several ordinary French citizens in the decades after the French Revolution. Its primary focus is on the former convict Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman), and his efforts to find happiness and redemption through caring for others in times of great need. He is constantly shadowed by Javert (Russell Crowe), a police inspector with an unwavering insistence on upholding the plainly unjust tenets of French law.
Eight years after being given his ticket of leave from prison, Valjean has assumed an alias and works as the head of a factory and mayor of the town of Montreuil-sur-Mer. It is discovered that one of his workers, Fantine (Anne Hathaway) is sending money to her illegitimate daughter Cosette (Isabelle Allen), who lives in a dodgy orphanage run by the Thénardiers (Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter) and their daughter Éponine (Natalya Wallace). Fantine becomes a prostitute, and Valjean promises to take care of her daughter after she passes away from her injuries, acquired on the streets.
The film flashes forwards and continues to focus on Valjean and his efforts to avoid Javert, who hunts him still. The story also gains focus on the plight of several young revolutionaries who are spurred into action after the death of a government official sympathetic to the poor.
Is it any good?
Les Misérables fell flat for the same reasons that most screen adaptations of musicals do. The director struggles to find a way to tell a story incorporating over-the-top songs in a manner that befits the genre. Movies are very different from stage musicals – a little bit of flash goes a long way, particularly regarding songs. Les Misérables is at a disadvantage because its subject matter is so heavy. This is a story of post-revolutionary France – its title translates loosely to “The Wretched Poor”. This story endeavours to show you the squalor, decrepitude and lack of justice of the world its characters inhabit. I found it very difficult to buy all of that given the extravagant songs, featuring lyrics that blurt out generic clichés about lower-class life. Les Misérables comes across as an exploration of lower-class life written and produced by upper-class elitists who have sanitised and choreographed their story so as not to impact the delicate sensibilities of its target audience.
One aspect of Les Misérables that was effective was the performance of Anne Hathaway. She really is as good as much of the hype indicates, and her performance of I Dreamed a Dream (which always seemed to me to be such a stupid title for a sombre song – what else do you do to a dream?) is affecting in spite of the annoyingly literal lyrics.
Les Misérables comes across as an exploration of lower-class life written and produced by upper-class elitists who have sanitised and choreographed their story so as not to impact the delicate sensibilities of its target audience.
Anne Hathaway is the stand-out performer in Les Misérables. Russell Crowe stands out for different reasons entirely. He captures the physicality of Javert very well, but he just cannot sing. Any songs that challenged his higher range lacked strength of voice. Javert’s character arc is also unsatisfying. No explanation is given for this man’s wilful adherence to a clearly flawed code of conduct, and his demise comes about out of nowhere, featuring yet another song that failed to express the inner thoughts of this character in a meaningful way. (Spoiler ahead) In this scene, Javert cannot reconcile the nobility that Valjean displayed in allowing Javert to go free after years of being hunted by his arch-enemy. Some choice lyrics from the song: “I should have perished by his hand, it was his right! It was my right to die as well! Instead I live, but live in hell!”
While we’re on the topic of the movie’s lyrics, how about this one from the song “At the End of the Day”: “At the end of the day it’s another day over, with enough in your pocket to last for a week.”
Sacha Baron Coen has a few funny moments as Thénardier, the unscrupulous “Master of the House” who runs an organised petty crime ring from his orphanage, but is it really much of a stretch for him? Or for Helena Bonham Carter, who plays his wife in yet another performance portraying an eccentric, witch-like crone? Both of those roles were interpreted in very unoriginal ways for this new big screen adaptation – taking what has worked in the past for these actors, and spoon-feeding it to audiences again.
Director Tom Hooper tried a novel way of recording the songs for this movie – recording them during primary production rather than asking the actors to lip-sync during filming before recording the songs in a studio. This results in a mixed bag of singing prowess . As one would imagine, those with decent voices fare a lot better than those without. Unfortunately, most of the principals don’t seem to have a lot of natural singing talent.
Tom Hooper last directed The King’s Speech, a film that I felt had sequences that flowed like a cinematic poem. His efforts here are disappointingly insipid. During the songs he employs a single trick of providing a close-up of his actor’s face. Presumably this is to better express the emotions of the actor through non-verbal means – something that is just about impossible to do on stage. As mentioned before, Hathaway gives quite a startling physical performance in her I Dreamed a Dream sequence, but it’s accompanied by those damn lyrics (“I had a dream my life would be so different from this hell I’m living, so different now from what it seemed, now life has killed the dream I dreamed.) For me, the songs inability to match the gravity of the performances killed the whole experience. Maybe a non-musical adaptation of Hugo’s novel would be an interesting experience. Tom Hooper’s Les Misérables is a thoroughly unsatisfying experience, and at 140 minutes, is a flabby and self-indulgent one, to boot.