Les Miserables, director Tom Hooper’s adaptation of the iconic musical, itself based on Victor Hugo’s classic 1862 novel, was an odd experience for me, in that, while it is frequently very messily directed, and actually highlights some of play’s shortcoming, it’s nevertheless one of the most affecting experiences I’ve had at a movie all year. I think this is a result of the strength and authority of the performances, which effectively communicate the beauty of the play’s songs. Since this is a film, the performances are also slightly less operatic, rawer and more naturalistic. Moreover, the film does what any production of Les Miserables, cinematic or otherwise, is supposed to do, which is move you in the most intoxicating and sublime way.
I love the opening shot of this film, which starts underwater, rises up and gives us a view of a docked ship in the middle of a storm, and as the camera rises we hear the opening notes of “Overture/Work Song,” that opens the show. This whole sequence establishes the dirty, grounded and organic feel of the film. Les Miserables is not a glossy musical and the film understands this. When we see the prisoners pulling on those ropes attached to the ship, we immediately understand the cruelty and despair during this time period in France’s history. We are introduced to Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman), a man sentenced to prison for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his sister’s child. We’re also introduced to Javert (Russell Crowe), a policeman who tells Valjean he has earned his parole but has to carry a ticket-of-leave that tells people he’s an ex-convict. These two men’s fates will be intertwined through the years. Valjean is offered food and shelter by a bishop. Valjean steals the bishop’s silver, only to be caught by the police. The bishop lies to the police to save Valjean. Valjean, moved by the bishop’s kindness, decides break his parole and begin his life anew.
At this point in the film, I think the flaws of the stage play, and the problems in putting it on film, begin to show themselves. When we meet Valjean again, he’s a factory owner and the mayor of a French town. While we don’t need to see every little detail leading up to Valjean becoming mayor, it’s such a dramatic transformation of we should see more. The play makes this sudden jump forward in time as well. This probably works better on stage but it’s a sign of how condensed the musical version of Hugo’s novel is. For a story that lends itself to an epic sweep, the musical is almost too economic. More on that later.
Having a condensed narrative also plagues the Fantine (Anne Hathaway) storyline. Fantine works in Valjean’s factory, sending money to an innkeeper and his wife (Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter), who are taking care of her illegitimate daughter Cosette. After being kicked out of the factory by the other workers for denying a foreman’s advances, Fantine turns to prostitution. This all happens so quickly that it’s almost ridiculous. I’d like to get more of Fantine’s back-story, instead of just being introduced to her and then seeing her fall in to a personal hell. This isn’t to say I didn’t sympathize with Fantine, which I did. This owes a lot to Hathaway’s performance. Hathaway is a beautiful movie star, but any trace of glamour is stripped away by the time we reach Fantine’s famous number, “I Dreamed a Dream.” The song is shot all in close up, and Hathaway is absolutely devastating, communicating so much pain and regret in a relatively short time. The tragedy of so many broken lives and dreams are all there in her face.
Speaking of movie stars, Jackman gives what is a career best performance, probably due to the fact that this role, more than any film role of his to date, allows Jackman to play to his strength as a song and dance man on the stage. Well, maybe not the dance part. He gives Valjean a fiery anger in the opening of the film, as well as a strong sense of nobility and forgiveness later on in the narrative. Crowe, as the inspector Javert, is the odd man out of the film. You can tell he’s not as natural a singer as some of the other actors. At the same time, I like Crowe’s performance. His natural gruffness works for the authoritative and world weary Javert. And when Javert tells Valjean, after he discovers the mayor was the convict he had been searching for, that he was born in a prison with people like Valjean, there’s something about Crowe’s presence that makes you believe this.
Tom Hooper, the film’s director, is a pretty controversial director. Not because of anything within his films, but that he won Best Director for 2010’s The King’s Speech, which also won Best Picture, beating out David Fincher for Best Director for The Social Network. The fact that he won is neither here or there in regards to this review, but I do think Hooper has been cast in a much too negative light for winning, and this has maybe has affected the way some are going to view this film, especially since Hooper’s direction is the most problematic element of the film. Hooper’s camera work here is too erratic a lot the time, with many scenes being shot too tightly, particularly in regards to the songs. Watching this film, I realized how intimate the musical is. Most of the songs are one person singing alone, dwelling on their own feelings. I did feel that Hooper’s use of close-ups was very effective in some instances, including “I Dreamed a Dream” and Valjean’s first extended number. During Javert’s “Stars” however, there’s a moment where we get an extreme close-up of Crowe’s face, and feels like overkill. I did however like the setting of the song and how it pays off visually in Javert’s final number. Hooper’s visual style also falls prey to the tradition of “chaos cinema” prevalent in action films today, where Hooper doesn’t let certain shots during some sequence breath as much as they should. I wanted the camera to pull back, and show us more of this world. Hooper’s shot to shot filmmaking in The Damn United (2009) and The King’s Speech felt more composed
I talked earlier about how for such an epic story, everything seems condensed. This is my issue with the whole revolution aspect of the story. Marius (Eddie Redmayne) is a student who is part of the 1832 Paris uprising. When we learn of the revolution, it does feel like it comes out of nowhere. Like Fantine, Marius is just thrown at us, fully formed. I think there needed to be more background to the revolution, as well as Marius and the students, something in the first act that would have reverberated in to the second. Marius’ life does become tied to Valjean’s however, when he falls in love with Cosette (Amanda Seyfried), who Valjean adopted after Fantine’s death. Marius and Cosette’s romance, for me, is pretty underdeveloped. Like Romeo & Juliet, it’s supposed to be a love at first sight type of deal but I wish the film, and the source material, would have spent more time showing us why Marius and Cosette should be love. The most effective part of their romance however, is how it affects Eponine (Samantha Barks), who secretly loves Marius. Barks rendition of “On My Own,” is another emotional high point in the film. Barks is known for her stage work but I hope to see her in more films. She’s beautiful and talented.
Seyfried, in the underwritten role of Cosette, does fine work, being a convincingly angelic presence. While I wanted more development of her romance with Marius, one can still easily accept falling in love with Seyfried on first sight. Redmayne is also pretty solid, with a soulful voice. I forgot earlier to mention Sacha Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter’s performances as the Thenardiers, the innkeepers who looked after Cosette. The Thenardiers are the comic relief of the film, and Carter and Cohen have no problem playing up the scuzziness and bizarre nature of the characters. They’re funny but at the same time I think these characters will always clash with the more serious nature of the story.
This review has come across as more negative than I originally planned. Strangely enough, I actually loved this movie, or at least loved the stuff that worked. Despite some problems with the visual style and the condensation of the story, whenever the film needs to hit an emotional high, it does so magnificently. The film draws you in more than it pushes you away. It never comes across as too stagey nor does it drag too much. The performances create an authentic emotional atmosphere and are occasionally sublime. While the all singing nature of the play and film keep it detached from certain themes regarding its revolution storyline, the power of the songs are universal and speak to us today. Yes, despite my criticisms, this is one of my favourite films of the year.