Les Miserables: An Okay Film, and a Missed Opportunity

This is the movie I was the most excited for in 2012, not Lincoln, not The Avengers, and not Moonrise Kingdom or Prometheus (well, maybe Prometheus), but Les Miserables, adapted from the classic Boubil and Schonberg musical which was in turn adapted from Victor Hugo’s classic 1862  novel (both of the same name). Saying this as a heterosexual male born after the Reagan administration: I wanted to love this movie-musical. Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, Anne Hathaway, Eddie Redmayne, Amanda Seyfried, Samantha Barks, Helena Bonham Carter, and Sacha Baron Cohen star with Tom Hooper in the director’s chair.

Les Miserables is the story of a man named Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) and his lifelong quest for  true freedom and peace after being paroled (nineteen years for stealing a loaf of bread) by Inspector Javert (Russell Crowe). Valjean swiftly discovers that he will never be able to have anything resembling a satisfying life while remaining a convict in the eyes of the law. After a life-changing experience with a generous bishop, Valjean ditches his past life to make something of himself. And he does, but after an encounter with Javert and his meeting a dying prostitute named Fantine (Anne Hathaway) that he had formerly employed at his factory, his new life comes crashing down around him and the universe gives him a doe-eyed child named Cosette in return (Fantine’s daughter). Cosette had been in the care (and arguably the employ) of the Thenardiers, a pair of smarmy innkeepers (Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen). Eventually everyone grows up and Cosette falls in love with a young revolutionary named Marius (Eddie Redmayne) who is in turned loved by Eponine (Samantha Barks), who is the daughter of the Thenardiers. But Javert has picked up Valjean’s scent once more and – I’ll stop here for both my sake and yours (the novel is over a thousand pages and I restricted myself to a paragraph for summarizing).

Let’s get the obvious out of the way first: Anne Hathaway. I can see why Shakespeare married her, she gives the best performance in a film with more than a few excellent performances. Though her screen-time is brief comparatively, Hathaway’s Fantine is desperate, broken, depressed and all too believable in her descent into hell to care for her daughter. Her rendition of “I Dreamed a Dream” is not as bombastic and operatic as some famous performances of the song, but it is a stunning work of acting where the emotion on her face is reflected in the song. The scene is easily the highlight of the film, which is disappointing considering the hour and forty-five minutes left to go.

She also played Catwoman. Hathaway had a varied year.

She also played Catwoman. Hathaway had a varied year.

Jean Valjean is one of the iconic roles of musical theater, and for the first adaptation of the musical for the screen (the novel has been adapted many times), Hugh Jackman was the perfect choice. Jackman has star-power in spades, but he also has something even more important: chops. Jackman sans his Wolverine-claws is a legitimately good actor and singer capable of both giving a nuanced performance and anchoring star-studded ensemble such as this one and he ably handles both in Les Miserables. Jackman gives the performance of his career (thus far) and sets a very high bar for future Jean Valjeans (and there definitely will be).

That is a terrible tagline.

That is a terrible tagline.

Russell Crowe would have been the perfect Javert…if this wasn’t a musical. Crowe is passable for most of the film, but his voice just isn’t strong enough for some of his scenes, this is especially noticeable in his opening and closing numbers. Crowe embodies many of Javert’s key characteristics: his obsession, his absolutism, and his doubt. Crowe, however, simply wasn’t the right choice for a musical and is an obvious attempt to get another big name for the ensemble.

Ugh. I feel like I wrote this paragraph yesterday in my post on Django Unchained about the character of Broomhilda. Cosette as portrayed by Amanda Seyfried is just sort of there while everything is going on. Cosette is treated as a prize: an idealized maiden for the heroic young revolutionary Marius, a loving daughter for the conflicted Jean Valjean, and a reason to live for the desperate Fantine. Cosette, to me at least, is just a pretty face and lacks any real character development aside from falling in love with Marius (instantaneously): this aspect of the film is bungled, badly. Seyfried, though, does not deserve blame, while not a standout, she is certainly competent. Isabelle Allen, as the younger Cosette, is excellent, particularly for being such a young actress and is fantastic in her limited screen-time. She also bears quite the resemblance to the young Cosette famously seen on the poster for the stage show.

Eddie Redmayne is superb as Marius, and makes his emotional plight seem both genuine and substantial. Marius is a young man from affluence who has chosen to be a revolutionary. His world is shaken by a glimpse of Cosette. Redmayne is given the unenviable task of making us believe that he has fallen for Cosette (which he somehow does), as well as being righteously enraged by the social inequality in the society. Redmayne’s voice is strong but seems brittle when sharing a scene with Cosette, which was an excellent choice on either his or Hooper’s part, and more confident when sharing a scene with his compatriots. His natural and at-ease brotherly nature with Eponine also makes her story all the more tragic.

Eponine is sad.

Eponine is sad.

Samantha Barks played Eponine while Les Miserables was showing on the West End, she also plays her in this film, and she plays her very, very well. Barks may have the strongest voice of anyone in the cast and her acting is excellent as well. Eponine is one of the most beloved characters from the musical for one reason: people relate to her. Eponine’s love for Marius is sad, doomed, and realistic, while he is oblivious and makes liberal use of her street-savvy ways to get together with Cosette (she is stuck in the friend-zone). Her screen-time is brief, but her performance may be the highlight of the latter half of the film.

Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen, when I had first heard that they were to play the Thenardiers my first thought was, “yeah, that sounds about right.” Carter and Cohen gleefully chew up the scenery and give their all into playing these disgusting, pathetic characters (caricatures would also not be inaccurate). They are fun, they may be on screen a bit too much, but they certainly  provide the necessary comic relief in a relatively depressing tale (ending not withstanding).

Such a loving pair.

Such a loving pair.

Much has been said about Tom Hooper and his directorial choices and the effect they had on the overall product. Fresh off of a slew of statues for The King’s Speech (competent and crowd-pleasing, not extraordinary) Hooper chose to tackle Les Miserables, both a bold choice and a safe one (I don’t see how this film could fail to makes its money back). Hooper spends much of the film on extreme closeups of his actor’s faces to decidedly mixed results. It works with Fantine, doesn’t with Javert, and is sporadically successful with Valjean. The decision to sing live on camera rather than to dub is an interesting one and is largely successful. The live singing makes the film more intimate and less bombastic, which something a movie-musical can do more easily than a stage-musical. At times it doesn’t work out well, such as the opening number with Valjean in the sea, and Javert watching from above. The costuming and set-designs are uniformly excellent in Les Miserables and elevate the film by making it fantastic to look at (and worth seeing on the big-screen).

I have long held the belief that I would rather watch a bad film than a disappointing one: I could not care less that Battleship was panned, but I was thoroughly disappointed that Les Miserables ended up simply being okay, when it should have been great. It is worth seeing, however, if only for the performances of Anne Hathaway and Hugh Jackman.

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