I almost feel as if I should preface everything I say with this: I’m a huge fan of musicals. If I didn’t have problems with finding and staying on key, or with my pitch, I’d totally be doing musical theater right this moment. The problem is, Les Miserables comes from a generation of stage productions which are insanely popular despite not being of much artistic value or merit. It’s from the Andrew Lloyd Weber-era of pure spectacle, shows which beat you over the head with their insistence on making you feel something instead of earning it through good writing, filled with refrains of essentially one song rewritten over and over again.
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.