As someone who has never read Victor Hugo’s novel nor seen the musical adaptation on stage I was hardly going in to Les Misérables completely blind, but I was certainly coming from a different perspective from that of people who know either version of the source material by heart.
Clocking in with a running time of more than two-and-a-half hours, Les Misérables refuses to skimp in big set pieces (such as the opening sequence set in the Bagne of Toulon), large themes (faith, freedom, liberty, and morality), or filling out its roster with several big name stars.
Director Tom Hooper‘s (The King’s Speech) adaptation casts Hugh Jackman in the role of Jean Valjean, a French peasant who (as the play opens) is released from Toulon after serving 19 years of hard labor for stealing a loaf of bread to feed starving relatives and Russell Crowe as the intractable Inspector Javert who relentless tracks the man for years after Valjean breaks his parole.
Following his release from prison, Valjean travels across France and starts a new life as a prosperous factory owner. Jumping ahead eight years, the arrival of Javert coincides with the dismissal of a woman named Fantine (Anne Hathaway) from his factory. Javert who suspects, but cannot prove, the man in front of him is the prisoner he seeks, and downward spiral of Fantine who was using her job to secretly send money to an inn keeper (Sacha Baron Cohen) and his wife (Helena Bonham Carter) to keep care of her illegitimate daughter, will once again cause an upheaval in Valjean’s life.
After discovering his unintentional cruelty has doomed Fantine to prostitution and a shortened life on the streets, Valjean steps in at the last minute to take responsibility for the woman’s young daughter Cosette (Isabelle Allen, and later played by Amanda Seyfried) and raise her as his own. Fleeing Javert again, Valjean and Cosette reappear a decade later on the eve of the Paris Uprising of 1832.
The opening hour of the film feels fractured as we spend limited time with Valjean in separate lives before being ripped forward a decade in the future (twice). Only then does our story settle in and begin in earnest in 1832 once all the players including the older Cosette and the French revolutionaries (Eddie Redmayne, Aaron Tveit, Samantha Barks, Daniel Huttlestone) have finally been introduced.
For a worldwide phenomenon I have to say I was somewhat disappointed in the music of Les Misérables. Other than Hathaway’s shining moment singing “I Dreamed a Dream” (which has already earned her Golden Globe and SAG nominations) and Samantha Barks impressive performance of the the show’s most recognizable song “On My Own,” I found much of the music easily forgettable. As someone who has never seen the musical performed live I can’t say for certain whether this has to do more with the music on the page or the movie’s choice of performers.
Jackman is certainly well-cast, and for those who have never seen the classically trained actor in his natural habitat, and only in action movies and thrillers, should be pleasantly surprised. The film can’t quite get his make-up right for the 20 year span his performance covers, but that’s a minor quibble. I was far less impressed with the limited range of Russell Crowe who certainly fits the mold of the letter-of-the-law Javert but who struggles with the operatic demands his role requires.
Of all the performances, although she’s on-screen for less than a fifth of the film’s running time, Hathaway is the standout in a role that requires far more than her recent appearance in The Dark Knight Returns. Seyfried is fine as the object of desire and affection, but nowhere near as memorable. And although I enjoyed Barks’ musical performance, the script doesn’t give her much else to do over the course of her limited time on-screen.
The film’s second-half relies heavily on a love story between Cosette and a young idealistic revolutionary named Marius (Redmayne). This is problematic because Redmayne has all the personality and screen presence of driftwood. I also was perplexed by the performances of Cohen and Bonham-Carter who are so over the top they might as well be wearing “I’m with Stupid” t-shirts. I realize their role is comic relief to lighten the load from the musical’s darker moments, but the pair are so goofy I honestly wondered if Hooper had brought in Tim Burton to direct the scenes (or if they were simply unused footage from Dark Shadows).
Les Misérables may not be one of the year’s best films, but it is certainly worth seeing in the theater. The production and scale help sell the epic feel of Hugo’s tale projected on-screen and set to music (even when it’s Russell Crowe who is singing). It may take a roundabout route to get there, but the movie manages to deliver an emotional ending for our hero, and I will admit some of the revolutionary songs work better as reprises and callbacks, such as “Do You Hear The People Sing?,” than the first time we hear them. Fans of the musical should feel at home.