Les Misérables Reviews
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Starting life as a novel by Victor Hugo in 1862, Les Misérables was subsequently transformed into a lavish stage musical in 1980, and in the decades to follow it has been performed countless times, even picking up eight Tony Awards following its Broadway debut in 1987. It's a theatre mainstay, and its reputation speaks for itself. But as a movie - or, more specifically, as this movie directed by Tom Hooper - Les Misérables is awful. It shouldn't be hard to make a great film out of the source material, yet Hooper and the cavalcade of screenwriters managed to fuck it up, and the product is a wasted opportunity considering the talent and budget. It's a through-and-through slog, a borderline unwatchable piece of shit that stands as one of 2012's worst movies. Even Paranormal Activity 4 was better than this.
Set in the 19th century, Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) has endured years of hard labour as punishment for a loaf of bread he once stole. At long last released from prison on parole, Valjean sets out to make a new life for himself, but is pursued by police inspector Javert (Russell Crowe), who's determined to once more imprison the ex-con. Reinventing himself under the new identity of Monsieur Madeleine, Valjean encounters lowly prostitute Fantine (Anne Hathaway), who's on the verge of death and has an illegitimate daughter, Cosette (Isabelle Allen). Following Fantine's demise, Valjean rescues Cosette from the clutches of her wicked guardians (Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter), and raises her as his own. Years later, Cosette (now played by Amanda Seyfried) falls in love with student revolutionary Marius (Eddie Redmayne), who plans to take part in an uprising against the British monarchy.
To say the least, the narrative of Les Misérables is labyrinthine and convoluted, requiring a skilful touch in order for it to work. Unfortunately, this picture is stuck with Hooper, who's not cut out for the project. None of the characters rise above one-dimensional throughout the punishing 160-minute runtime, which is a huge problem since there are so many of them and our investment in the story is reliant upon our desire to watch them succeed. Character relationships are particularly unformed and superficial, most notably the love between Cosette and Marius that comes out of nowhere and makes no impact. Meanwhile, Javert's efforts to recapture Valjean simply makes him look like a lonely man with nothing else to live for. It might work on stage, but in a motion picture it seems silly, and a late scene involving Javert comes off in hugely bad taste because Hooper seems to judge the character, telling us that he's a cardboard villain who deserves to die a horrific death. The problem is that there's no downtime between the songs; it's on all the time, denying us the little character moments necessary to properly develop these people. If the intention was to develop them through the songs, Hooper failed. With absolutely no depth to anything that happens, Les Misérables is a strained, meandering watch devoid of emotional oomph.
The big gimmick of Les Misérables is the well-promoted fact that the performers actually sung the tunes live on-set, rather than lip-syncing to pre-recorded tunes. Reportedly, the creative decision was to strip theatricality out of the production, rendering this musical raw and realistic. But musicals aren't realistic in the slightest, as nobody in real life spontaneously sings while backed by a sweeping orchestra. Without the sense of well-rehearsed theatricality, Les Misérables feels utterly lackadaisical and drab, ironically keeping us more at arm's length. It's a problem that 99% of the spoken words in the movie are sung, because none of the tunes are memorable. You will not come away from the movie humming any tunes or singing any lyrics; in fact barely any of the songs actually register as songs. Hooper's approach in itself is not flawed in theory, but the execution is outright catastrophic, without so much as a modicum of visual flair or style.
It would seem that a lot of the big issues with Les Misérables stem from the ugly cinematography. Indeed, the compositions here are either woefully pedestrian or downright wrong-headed. The art of cinema facilitates close-ups that aren't possible on stage, allowing us to get closer to the actors and see their nuanced performances. Hooper clearly knew that fact, because that's literally all he does, for more or less every single song that's performed. The effect is disastrous, making for an oddly claustrophobic experience despite the ostensibly large scope. Worse, Hooper and director of photography Danny Cohen display little understanding of such basic principals as head room and looking room, making this a definitive masterclass in how not to shoot a movie. Bafflingly, too, there's no sense of grandeur or majesty to the movie. Whereas musicals like Sweeney Todd feature brilliant dolly and crane shots that keep us under the filmmaker's thoughtful spell, Hooper's handheld compositions look rushed and half-hearted, with actors even going out of focus on a constant basis. The fact that the actors performed the songs live meant that the best musical take had to be used, technical merits of the take notwithstanding. At one stage, Jackman actually bumps into the camera, which destroys the illusion. With the picture being shot digitally, Les Misérables looks like a cheap BBC production, though there are several made-for-TV period movies that look more majestic than this (see 1984's A Christmas Carol).
The actors, bless their hearts, give it their all, but are ultimately let down by the painfully mediocre filmmaking surrounding them. Hathaway is in a league of her own, generating the movie's sole moments of genuine emotional pathos with her rendition of I Dreamed a Dream. The actress received a lot of attention and acclaim, and she deserves it, making it all the more unfortunate that Hooper keeps the camera so close the entire time, failing to do anything visually interesting with her performance. Jackman similarly commits to the film as Valjean; his singing is marvellous, and he conveys emotion extraordinarily well. On the other hand, Russell Crowe has a tough time with Javert - his voice is better suited for rock music (he is in a rock band, after all). As a result, a lot of Crowe's singing is noticeably flat. The only other actors who make an impression are Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter, providing some outstanding comical relief.
A $60 million Les Misérables movie has no business being this cold and detached, but that's exactly what Tom Hooper manages to do. His understated style worked for The King's Speech, but he's positively lost here. Les Misérables alternates between tediously boring, ludicrously amateurish, and halfway interesting, the latter of which is mainly thanks to Anne Hathaway, who's gone after the first half-hour.
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To boil it down even further: Les Miserables main problems occur within the stage show, and, as such, there’s little to no fixing them in a film adaptation. But the film adaptation didn’t have to be this overbearing.
That’s not to say Les Miserables is completely without merits, and there are many things to admire about the film. But the summation of the parts does not add up to a pretty whole. Of course, if the literal translation of your film’s title is “The Miserables,” I don’t think anyone goes into this expecting to come out having had a good time. But Les Miserables tends to glorify the worst aspects of showboating and wears its neediness to be loved out in the open, which leads to some garish and vulgar displays of sheer emotional manipulation.
But let’s start off with the good stuff. In a near Herculean effort, Hugh Jackman manages to make this whole enterprise watchable through his central performance alone. The film never works, but with anyone but Jackman leading the charge onscreen, it would have been a colossal failure. With a role that requires him to speak-sing “I’m Jean Valjean!” roughly once every five minutes; Jackman finds a way to anchor in it some semblance of reality and brings a gravity and wounded soul that really sells not just the role, but the film.
Eddie Redmayne and Anne Hathaway deliver what are without a doubt the best performances in the film as a young student revolutionary and a fallen woman. Redmayne is all soulful glances and fervent hope as he discovers first love and political idealism. His performance of “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables” is one of the few songs and images that stick with you long after the film has ended. It’s also one of the few quiet moments in which real, palpable emotion can be felt as Redmayne delivers the ache and isolation at being the only one left alive in his group of friends.
And what more can be said about Anne Hathaway’s performance? Like Jennifer Hudson in Dreamgirls, all it took for the Best Supporting Actress Oscar to be wrapped up was one song. And much like Hudson, it is THE song from the musical. Hathaway is dynamite, and her brief screen time punches a hole in the film that it never recovers from, but her “I Dreamed a Dream” is heart-wrenching. Singing that song with the full emotional commitment she does would be enough, but the insistence on framing it in real-time and like Falconetti-does-Broadway makes her performance stand out that much more. This isn’t a pretty, lilting version of the song; this is pure from-the-gut-up anguish being expelled from her character.
And scene-stealers Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen give the movie its few laugh riots. The film could have actually used them more often to break up some of the monotony of depressive character developments and images. “Master of the House” is edited within an inch of its life, but their performances in the number are fantastic. Granted, they do seem to have stumbled in from a totally separate universe than the rest of the film, but Shakespeare’s template of very serious drama mixed in with clowns has simply been carried over for these gruesome, malice-filled shysters.
The costumes, sets, makeup and sheer scope of the project are a wonder to behold. Each lovingly detailed and expertly crafted, but I’ve officially run out of superlatives to talk about in the film.
The musical score is by and large forgettable, practically un-hummable, and the lone new song is no better. Characters don’t emote through song, they lazily explain everything through it. For instance, Hathaway’s Fantine begins the film working in a factory. When we meet her, she’s singing with the rest of the workers about how they’re poor, miserable, work in a factory, dirty and sick. They announce through song instead of developing characters or dramatize their hopes and fears, desire and regrets, they’re simply saying “We work in a factory, we’re poor, we’re dirty, and it sucks to be us.” These pronouncements get to be more than a little ridiculous when you have Russell Crowe singing that he is Javert practically every time he is onscreen, as if they were worried that we’d forget who is character was and his function in the story.
And let’s talk about the story – I’m normally pretty lenient on a musical’s story, but Les Miserables stretches the credibility past the breaking point. No matter what Valjean does or where he goes, Javert magically shows up to chase him down and bring him to justice for minor infractions. Javert’s constant bloodhound chase isn’t terribly interesting, and seems more to do with the plot requiring him to show up in a situation than a natural extension of the story developments. The subplots – Fantine, the Thenardiers, the student revolutionaries – are far more interesting than the main thrust of the narrative, but in a three hour film, they’re totaled out to about twenty minutes each.
And Tom Hooper, normally a Masterpiece Theater-type, has decided that what this movie needed more than anything was handheld cameras and frantic editing like it was an action movie. The insistence on close-ups for many of the solo numbers isn’t too awful, but the handheld camera proves distracting as it bops and bounces all over the place in numerous spots. And all I’m saying is if you take a shot every time someone hits a big glory note and the camera pulls back to reveal the CGI Paris, you’d get wasted pretty quickly.
Given that most of the problems with the film are in the sloppy directing, editing and writing, I’m not sure if a great movie could have been made from these materials. A better one, sure. But a great one? Not with a (play)book like this one.
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Following his Oscar winning success for The King's Speech, Tom Hooper took charge of behind the camera and once again, provides sublime direction. The stage play and Victor Hugo's novel has depression written all over it and there is so much negativity. However, along with practically every song in Les Misérables, Hooper created a great deal of passion. With this in mind, the songs became a way for each of the characters to entirely expose their inner selves and added such strong energy from within. However, Les Misérables is structured into three different stages and at times, it slightly lost a little steam. With the story being so broad and especially the 2 ½ hour duration, you eventually grow out of the songs and the story occasionally aims nowhere. The first two acts were rushed but the third one was slow. Still, Les Misérables needed to provide something more thought-provoking to the audience other than making them weep and listen to songs; and it did that admirably.
To cast actors in a feature without them being a solution for profitable advantage is difficult, especially when this one is based on such a popular musical. Also, the ability of passionate singing has to count for something. Still, Hugh Jackman cracked out of his shell and delivered a genuinely heartfelt performance as Jean Valjean. We see this character in three different stages of his life – as an imprisoned thief, a wealthy factory owner and a caring guardian. This guy suffers throughout the majority of the film and through Jackman's surprisingly impressive, energetic singing; we can emotionally connect to Valjean through these moments of his life. Jackman has always been a strong leading performer and once again, he did just that. Furthermore, Russell Crowe has received mixed responses not only regarding his singing abilities but his general performance in Les Misérables. Although he expressed signs of inner passion within police inspector Javert through singing, he was perhaps miscast for the role. He was not quite as despicable or as cruel that he should have been. Don't forget, this is the guy who played Maximus, Robin Hood, Jim Braddock and is about to play Jor-El and Noah! He is a great actor but he has 'hero' all over him. Therefore, his antagonist role in Les Misérables did not entirely work.
Meanwhile, Amanda Seyfried's performance as Fantine's child Cosette was somewhat flat. Seyfried may have had the physical attributes of Cosette but acting-wise, like Jayne Wisener in Sweeney Todd, she was not a very convincing central character and she mostly failed to grasp the emotional depth to her performance. Despite this, her singing was decent enough. The same can be said Eddie Redmayne too. He may have succeeded as a singer but he was also miscast in the film as he lacked the sophisticating charm of Marius Pontmercy and failed to grasp a realistic emotional connection between him and Seyfried as Cosette. However, Samantha Barks becomes easily the best of the youngsters as Éponine, a teenage girl madly in love with Marius. This character and performance from Barks becomes what Seyfried should have been.
Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen became the more eccentric additions to the cast as the Thénardiers, two housekeepers who are the parents of Épione and serve as Cosette’s temporary guardians. Together Bonham Carter and Baron Cohen provided a little comical humor and added more sophistication from a past musical adapted from a play (Sweeney Todd). Nevertheless, the obvious stand-out of Les Misérables is Anne Hathaway, who delivers the performance of her career as Fantine, a young factory worker turned prostitute. This character summarizes the entire film’s heart-breaking and emotionally shattering tone as we see this desperate young woman trying to support her child but results in despair and tragedy. Hathaway will steal and then break your heart to pieces, especially when she sings "I Dreamed A Dream". She deserves an Academy Award for that song alone!
Although Les Misérables is not strictly a historical film, it does have certain set-pieces of the past behind it. It worked perfectly for Tom Hooper in The King’s Speech and once again, grasping a historical atmosphere miraculously worked for him in this musical. Depending on what they’re hoping for, fans of the stage play (or even Victor Hugo’s novel) should be at least satisfied with Hooper’s adaptation of the tale. Nevertheless, this film adaptation has a few problems with acting and pacing but it still expresses a deal of depression and misery in a form of energetic passion and, thus, becomes a well-accomplished and gifted musical.
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