Directed by: Tom Hooper
Written by: William Nicholson (screenplay), Victor Hugo (novel)
Starring: Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, Anne Hathaway, Amanda Seyfried, Sacha Baron Cohen, Helena Bonham Carter
Tom Hooper’s (The King’s Speech) ambitious, sweeping epic adaptation of the musical Les Miserables hits full force on all cylinders during the first half, ensuring that it will garner a plethora of Academy Award nominations. However, an unfortunate and disappointing second half sends the film careening off course, and left me scratching my head over what exactly went wrong.
Les Miserables (based on the French novel by Victor Hugo) has so successfully ingratiated itself into the world of pop culture that chances are you know the story of Jean Valjean and his lifelong quest to elude the clutches of police inspector Javert, even if you have never read the book or seen a performance. There have been multiple film adaptations and countless musicals based on the story, so there has been much to-do swirling about Hooper’s take on the tale. Hooper secured an all-star cast for his production including Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, Anne Hathaway, Amanda Seyfried, Sacha Baron Cohen, Helena Bonham Carter, Eddie Redmayne and Samantha Barks.
For the uninitiated, Les Miserables largely takes place during the French Revolution, and tells the story of Jean Valjean (Jackman), who was imprisoned for nineteen years for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his sister’s children. After paying his penance, Valjean breaks parole, and an inspector (Javert, played by Russell Crowe) becomes obsessed with tracking the man down over the course of decades. After Valjean turns his life around, he becomes a successful factory owner and mayor of a small French town. When one of his factory workers (Fantine, played by Hathaway) is shunned from her place of employment and relegated to a tragic turn as a prostitute, Valjean swears to become the guardian of her young daughter Cosette (played as a youth by Isabelle Allen, later by Amanda Seyfried), complicating his life as a fugitive.
The first third of the movie is stunning. Massive set pieces, a wonderfully plaintive turn by Hathaway and infectious music buoy the film along. On more than one occasion I got goose bumps. Hathaway’s performance is astounding. Sadly, the apex of the film lies within that first hour or so, and after halfway mark the film sinks like a stone. It seems after Hathaway leaves the screen there is nary another highlight to be had.
The second half revolves around the uprising of the impoverished masses against the ruling class, and though there are some compelling set pieces, they pale in comparison to the first half. None of the performances can match those from the early parts of the film. The film starts to drag and drown under the weight of the heavy second half. That being said, Hooper has still produced a musical that is bound to go down in history as one of the most beloved film adaptations of a musical of all time.
Hooper insisted on live singing from his cast, a relative rarity nowadays. There was no lip-synching, what you see is what you get, with predictably varied results. As mentioned, Hathaway is strong, and acts the hell out of her brief screen time. Samantha Barks (Eponine) performed in the London musical production, and she is exceptional as well. Jackman is serviceable, but Crowe sort of sputters throughout. Despite singing for the band 30 Odd Foot of Grunts (now known as The Ordinary Fear of God), Crowe seems quite uncomfortable with the singing, often appearing winded and underwhelming. He fits the physical attributes of the role, but when held up in comparison with better singers, he’s a glaring misfit. Relative newcomer Redmayne (My Week With Marilyn) is a nice surprise, and Seyfried already proved her singing chops with Mamma Mia.
Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen inject some humor that didn’t quite work for me, but others might appreciate. The movie was such a somber affair that when the two appear on screen (as a grifting couple trying to extort money on behalf of Cosette) it seemed disjointed from the rest of the film, almost as though their characters were added as an afterthought.
As far as the narrative goes, when you review musicals, you’re always in a conundrum of sorts. If there is a weak narrative, do you fault the film, or the musical it was adapted from? Crowe’s character is ridiculous if examined independently from the musical. His absolute obsession over catching Valjean for skipping bail is perplexing. It was a loaf of bread. Get over it. Are you really going to dedicate your entire life to pursuing a man over such a petty crime? Apparently so.
There are also characters that fall in love over thirty second intervals and then vow to be together forever. If you were to judge the film on the merit of the story alone, it’s a big fail, but this being an adaptation from the magical land of musicals, I feel like you have to give it a pass. After all, it’s only depicting the source material.
Les Miserables might find a new audience due to the political overtones that closely mirror modern uprisings. Class warfare plays a prominent role in the second half of the movie, and we have seen similar stirrings across the globe as of late. Miserables might be more relevant in 2012 than we ever could have imagined. I doubt anyone who isn’t a fan of musicals will become a convert, but for the genre fan, Miserables will doubtless become a favorite, despite some flaws. – Shannon