Les Misérables

Faithful - if oppressive - version of the musical based on the Victor Hugo classic

Also opening this week:

• Frankenweenie ★★★½

Les Misérables


Directed by Tom Hooper. Starring Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, Anne Hathaway, Amanda Seyfried, Helena Bonham Carter, Eddie Redmayne, Sacha Baron Cohen, Aaron Tveit, Colm Wilkinson, Isabelle Allen, Samantha Barks. Written by William Nicholson, from the musical written by Claude-Michel Schönberg & Alain Boublil based on the novel by Victor Hugo.

One of the literary world’s most celebrated novels, Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables has been adapted for the screen numerous times since the dawn of cinema, with memorable English-language versions as early as 1935 (starring Frederic March as Jean Valjean) and as recent as 1998 (with Liam Neeson in the central role).

But it’s been the musical version – first conceived and staged in France, and then in London and on Broadway under producer Cameron Mackintosh – that has found the most success among mass audiences. A movie version of the musical has been rumored ever since the stage version hit it big in the late 1980s, but has only now come to fruition.

And the pedigree couldn’t be higher: working from a script by William Nicholson (Shadowlands), Oscar-winning director Tom Hooper (The King’s Speech) has brought together an exceptional cast that includes Hugh Jackman as reformed ex-convict Jean Valjean, Russell Crowe as Javert, the police inspector on his trail, Anne Hathaway as Fontaine, a poor factory worker turned prostitute, and Amanda Seyfried as Cosette, Fontaine’s daughter.

Their version of Les Misérables is immaculately conceived, with a larger-than-life recreation of gritty, grimy early-1800s Paris street life gorgeously staged and shot by cinematographer Danny Cohen. Sets, costumes, and art direction are all first-rate, as is the staging and choreography of the extended musical numbers.

But this is also a stuffy, oppressive film that feels every minute of its 157-minute runtime – and then some. And while there’s enough to admire here to overcome the somewhat tedious nature of sitting through this movie, one or two too many other missteps along the way turned me off the whole experience.

First and foremost is the central conceit of having the actors perform “live”: to give the film a raw, realistic feel, the vocals we hear were recorded live on set (rather than the traditional method of playing back vocals and having the actors lip-sync), with director Hooper shooting most of the action in tight close-ups to heighten the reality of the performances.

This pays off early, during Hathaway’s heartbreaking rendition of I Dreamed a Dream. But that’s just about the last time we take note of the “reality” of Les Misérables; 95% of the audience, I imagine, will have no idea about the concept, and just wonder why the songs here sound less slick and polished than what they are used to.

It’s frustrating experience: had he employed long, unbroken takes of the actors performing their material, director Hooper would have achieved exactly what he set out to do. Instead, the performances are over-edited to the point that the reality is lost; during 5 to 10-second takes, we start to connect with the performer, but there’s inevitably a cut right around the corner, usually to overstylized sets (that sometimes employ some ill-advised CGI effects) that directly contradict the director’s intent.

Compounding this concept is the fact that the actors aren’t really singers – and every line of dialogue here is sung. Crowe, clearly is the least comfortable; but I appreciated his performance the most, with every ounce of effort noticeable (it helps that Javert has the best character arc here). The other performers, merely good, simply fail to make much an impact, save for Hathaway, and young Daniel Huddleston as Gavroche.

And Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter, as the (strangely direct) comedic relief characterizations of the Thénardiers. They swiftly steal the show right away from the leads, with their rendition of Master of the House a clear musical highlight, light and lively in sharp contrast to the dead seriousness of the rest of the film. 

The love story between Cosette (Seyfried) and Marius (Eddie Redmayne) failed to grab me at all; similarly, the climactic June Rebellion – which should have added relevance given the current political climate (specifically the Occupy movement) – lacks the impact it ought to have. By that point, however, I may have been simply exhausted by the rest of the film. 

Les Misérables is undeniably a faithful, exquisitely staged and designed adaptation of the popular musical, and that may be enough to win over ardent fans and maybe even casual audiences. But it’s also a wearying experience that might just leave you feeling miserable by the end.

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