Let me start off by saying that I am not a fan of musicals in the slightest. I love music and I love film, but the combination of the two has never struck me as anything but odd and alienating. I know it’s a format that has been present for hundreds of years through opera, broadway, and eventually motion pictures, but it is very rare that I ever see a live action musical that doesn’t feel like it would have been far more compelling and easier to connect with had the characters just said their lines to each other like normal people tend to do. In any case, this inherent dislike of musicals was brought face to face with my admiration for the cast and director of Les Miserables, and as a result I honestly had no idea what to expect from the film. Having seen it, I can say that bottom line, if you enjoy musicals you will probably love Les Miserables, but if not you are at least given some truly Oscar-worthy performances and elaborate plot turns to rally behind.
After serving 19 years of hard labor for stealing a loaf of bread, Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) is released on parole by the harsh and god-fearing Inspector Javert (Russel Crowe). After being given a second chance by a kindly priest (Colm Wilkinson), Valjean breaks his parole and begins his new life under a false identity. Eight years later, Valjean has become a wealthy business owner and mayor of a small french town, when Inspector Javert brings him news that a man believed to be Jean Valjean has been captured and will be executed for his supposed crimes. The real Valjean’s conscience gets the better of him and he admits himself to be the real Jean Valjean, forcing him to flee to Paris from Javert’s vengeance. He brings with him the young Cosette (Isabelle Allen), the orphaned child of Fantine (Anne Hathaway), a woman who had worked at Valjean’s business before being fired and forced to resort to prostitution to help keep her daughter alive. As the years go by, Valjean beings to lose his ability to keep Cosette safely confined from the world as she falls in love with a young revolutionary named Marius (Eddie Redmayne).
Seriously, that’s the longest plot summary I’ve written for a movie in a while but it still doesn’t even scratch the surface of everything that goes on in this film. In other words, there are a lot of moving pieces at work here in what I’m told is a very faithful adaptation of Hugo’s original novel.
Before any of the other cast members, I’d like to touch on the two performances which are all but assured an Oscar nomination at this point; Anne Hathaway and Hugh Jackman. Hathaway is only present for about the first 20 minutes of the movie, but in those twenty minutes she gives one of the most tender and emotionally wrenching pictures of desperation and love that I have seen in quite some time. On top of that, Ms. Hathaway has an absolutely beautiful voice, and her version of “I Dreamed a Dream” will likely stand as the new standard for the song (Suck it, Susan Boyle). Jackman is given a much meatier part to work with, and while there were a lot of his lines that I would have appreciated much more had they been spoken rather than sung, I still felt the kind of raw emotion and dedicated optimism from his character that only Jackman’s complete dedication to the role could have achieved.
Russel Crowe tries his very hardest as Inspector Javert, but for the life of me I simply could not take his singing voice seriously. He’s not necessarily a bad singer, but the tone of his voice is incredibly distracting from the words he is saying. That being said, I really did enjoy the religious themes that the film introduced with the conflict between him and Valjean. Javert repeatedly cites piety as one of his reasons for tracking down Valjean, yet it is very clear that under the most important set of definitions it is Valjean who is motivated by true christian ideals, not Javert. Also aligned with the film’s antagonists are Helena Bonham-Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen as Madame y Monsieur Thenardier, Young Cosette’s thieving, lying wardens who routinely pop up to provide some brief moments of levity amid some of the more “Miserable” segments.
I was much less impressed with Redmayne and Amanda Seyfried at Marius and adult Cosette, respectively. Redmayne’s voice was just too high and nasally for me to really get into his character’s lines, and Seyfried simply isn’t given much to do but simper and look at Marius longingly with her enormous eyes. To be fair, I think a lot of my dislike for their characters comes from my dislike of the love-at-first-sight aspect of their arc. Yes, I get it that it’s a classic text with classic romantic ideals, but simply having these two characters fall deeply in love without any sort of development makes the whole thing feel unearned and, to me at least, uninteresting. The interchanges between them were probably the closest I came to being bored the entire movie. I did really enjoy newcomer Samantha Barks as Eponine, the lucklessly Friend-Zoned friend of Marius who I would have chased after over Cosette any day of the week.
As a final note on the players’ end, I was quite impressed with some of the child acting here. Isabelle Allen, who has had no prior film experience, shines as young Cosette and I would be incredibly surprised if she does not have a promising acting career ahead of her. In addition, fellow newcomer Daniel Huttleston is quite enjoyable as the youngest member of the rebels. Gavroche. He reminded me a lot of Toby from Sweeney Todd (Minus the throat slitting).
As this is a musical, I figure a few comments on the musical aspect of the film are due. Like most people, when I think of a musical on film I think of some sort of characters going about their usual business and periodically breaking into a song and dance number based on what someone just said. In this case, the musical aspect exists to give the events of the film a sort of exclamation point to what was said or expressed previously in a non-musical format. This is not so in Les Miserables, as nearly every line that any character in the film speaks is done so through the medium of song. Occasionally this is in the form of a traditional, rhyming pattern a la “I Dreamed a Dream”, but for the most part it is as if each character applies some sort of rhythm and tone to what they are saying. I know many people will disagree with me on this, but I felt like a more organized implementation of the “musical” part of the film along the lines of Chicago or Sweeney Todd would have made a lot of the characters easier to connect with (or even understand sometimes).
The Verdict: 7.5/10 Superior
+ Amazing, Oscar worthy performances from Hathaway and Jackman
+ Amazing direction by Tom Hooper, great decision to record the actors’ singing live
– Cosette/Marius story arc did not connect with me at all
– Musical aspect is a bit intrusive, makes the long run time a bit more noticeable
Peter Finn Films: 6/10
The Daily Rich: [Emotionally powerful, but highly flawed]
The Movie Review Blog: “nothing short of magic”
Entertainment Maven: “an extremely satisfying cinematic endeavor.”