Though I grew up in a very musical family and I can claim to have seen many plays onstage, I can’t claim to have ever seen a performance of Les Miserables. I’ve heard the soundtrack and I already knew the basic plot, but that’s as far as my experience went. In truth, I’ve long held a tinge of regret about that.
Enter Tom Hooper, fresh off his hard-won (though in my opinion, ill-earned) Best Director and Best Picture wins for The King’s Speech. Essentially given a blank slate to direct whatever Oscar-bait picture he wanted, Hooper chose to film an adaptation of Les Miserables. Then came the all-star cast, and then came this featurette, which was screened in front of just about every film I saw for several months, and then came the sterling critical reception with the inevitable awards buzz when the film was finally released.
I’d been led to believe that Les Miserables was a masterpiece, both in film and on stage. I’m afraid I must respectfully disagree. Though the adaptation is still quite good, it has some glaring problems. Some of the flaws are uniquely its own, and others can be traced back to the source material.
To start with, let’s go back to the featurette I linked to earlier. As it told us in such a cheery and repetitive manner, the singing in this film was done entirely live, without any of the usual lip-syncing to playback. I’m convinced that was the only way to do this movie. In fact, I’m left wondering how film operas were ever done without this technique. The songs in this movie are made no less jaw-dropping for it, and the performances are all made a great deal better. It does so much to sell the characters’ emotions as they burst into song, and that’s really what this whole play hinges on.
First and foremost among the cast, we have Hugh Jackman in the role of Jean Valjean. Anyone who’s paid attention to his career knows that Jackman is a highly multi-talented man, and every ounce of his potential was brought to the set of this film. Granted, Jackman has the advantage of a phenomenal character. Valjean is a very conflicted man, struggling his entire life to find love and redemption for being branded a criminal, even though the only crime he ever committed was done out of kindness and desperation.
Valjean is wonderfully compelling to watch in this film, due in no small part to the fact that Jackman turns in the single greatest performance in this whole sterling cast. The guy’s acting chops are phenomenal in this movie, and his singing voice is utterly sublime. I don’t know if this will be good enough to get Jackman the Oscar this year (he still has Daniel Day-Lewis to contend with, and that’s going to be a tough fight), but it’s easily good enough for a nomination at least. If nothing else, I have little doubt that this will be remembered as one of Jackman’s signature roles.
(Side note: It really says something about Jackman’s versatility that his two greatest roles so far should be so entirely different as Jean Valjean and Wolverine.)
On the other side of the spectrum, we have Russell Crowe in the role of Javert. Here is an officer of the law who is compelled — and ultimately undone — by his refusal to see any shades of grey between law and crime in the world. White is white, black is black, and that’s it. It’s this delusional sense of justice and his attempts to reconcile it with the world around him that makes Javert a fascinating character. Unfortunately, that’s due pretty much entirely to the source material and has little to do with Crowe.
Just as Jackman turns in the film’s strongest performance, Crowe turns in its weakest. The character demanded a kind of fanatical intensity that I kept looking for and never found in Crowe’s performance. Of course, it doesn’t help that Crowe’s singing voice (or lack thereof) was totally wrong for this character and for this film. Blech.
Of course, Anne Hathaway’s performance is the one that everyone keeps talking about, and rightly so. Fantine is a tremendously difficult part, as she only has a few brief scenes to win the audience’s heart and sing a very hard solo number before dying. The role demands an actress who can bare her very soul before the audience, compelling us to share in the character’s brief and hellish misery.
Though the character’s time is very short, it’s truly the role of a lifetime. And Hathaway carried it brilliantly. But then came “I Dreamed a Dream.”
Because her vocal performance was captured live on set, she couldn’t rely on any backups or substitutes. Because the song was a solo, there was nothing and nobody to distract our attention. Because the entire song was shot in a single take, Hathaway had to deliver the whole song in one go. Because that one shot was a protracted close-up on her face, every glance, wrinkle, and tear was magnified on the screen for all to see. The deck was stacked against her in every possible way, and yet Hathaway fucking NAILED it. She crushed it so hard despite so many handicaps that if it were in my power, I would grant her a Best Supporting nomination and a pardon for her awful job at hosting the Oscars, just for that one shot.
Of course, that still doesn’t address the matter of why the deck was stacked so badly against Hathaway to begin with.
Though the film deserves a tremendous amount of praise for its music and sound, the visuals are simply horrible. I don’t even know if I should start with the abysmal editing or the inconsistent camerawork, though the two sort of go hand-in-hand in this case. Take “I Dreamed a Dream,” for example. As I’ve already mentioned, that song was done entirely in one extensive close-up shot. This means that through the entire musical number, the view never changes. That gets very boring very quickly.
Far worse, plenty of other musical numbers in this movie are presented entirely in close-up. This does all kinds of damage when multiple characters are singing, as the editor has to switch between multiple close-ups in quick succession. I should also add that the close-ups take away from the set design and the costume design, since views of either can be quite rare in some scenes. In fact, I’m left to wonder how the performances might have been better if the actors weren’t shot entirely in close-up: What might they have done with their arms and body language to supplement their voices?
Of course, there are other complaints to be had against the camerawork. For instance, some shots were done at a Dutch angle despite a total lack of reason to do so. But here’s the cherry on top: Quite a few scenes in this movie were shot with a handheld camera. Clearly, the filmmakers were going for a “cinema verite” feel, and I could appreciate that in any other film. In this film, however, the gritty and immersive feel in some scenes clashes with the blatantly artificial close-ups and Dutch angles in other scenes.
These are the problems limited to the film adaptation. Now let’s move on to the problems brought over by the source material.
After the first act, our focus switches to the love triangle of Cosette, Marius, and Eponine, as well as the bloody revolution they get caught in. These characters are respectively played (in their teenaged iterations, anyway) by Amanda Seyfried, Eddie Redmayne, and Samantha Barks. All three of them sing their parts beautifully. I have no idea who Samantha Barks is, but that girl has some very impressive pipes. Redmayne’s career has been taking off lately, and I can finally see some hints of talent and charm from him, though his acting performance takes a notable hit when he isn’t singing. As for Seyfried, I’ll admit that she sings very prettily, which makes it all the more regrettable that she was stuck in such a worthless role.
That brings me to the main problem with this love triangle: It’s boring. There’s a guy who’s too stupid to recognize the beautiful woman who’s already in love with him, and he instead falls in mutual and everlasting twoo wuv with some two-dimensional blonde he’s never met after they glance at each other across a crowded street. Yawn.
This romance isn’t the least bit interesting and the characters aren’t remotely compelling, especially after what had come before. The three best characters in this story are Valjean, Javert, and Fantine. One of them is killed off after the first act while the other two get pushed to the wayside. That’s a huge problem, especially when they’re cast aside for something much less entertaining.
Well, there’s still the revolution, right? Yeah, about that. The big problem with the revolution story thread is that we’re never given any particular reason for the uprising. There’s something about freedom from an awful king and a growing distaste for the bourgeoisie, but what exactly do these revolutionaries hope to do? What system of government would they put in place and who would they choose to lead it? Precisely what are the problems with French society that might be solved if this king wasn’t on the throne?
An argument could be made that of course the story doesn’t go into details, since it was meant to be a smaller and more intimate story told against an epic backdrop. There are two problems with that. First of all, the film and the story make a huge deal out of mere schoolboys sacrificing their lives in a revolution. We’re expected to feel sorry for them, but that’s really hard to do when we don’t have any idea of what they’re fighting for. If these college students are taking up arms against the entire French military for some half-baked and impractical idea of freedom, that isn’t really sympathetic so much as it’s just plain stupid.
Secondly, there’s never any sign that this is some grand movement taking place throughout the country. Sure, there’s a general, but the whole thing kicked off when he died. So far as we know, this group is it. Marius and his friends are the movers and the shakers here. As such, our main characters are directly responsible for starting this bloody revolution while going through so much personal drama at the same time. The film tries to have it both ways, telling a huge story and a small one at the same time, and it’s a balancing act that totally fails.
For comparison’s sake, consider Casablanca. There’s another small story about a love triangle with global stakes. In this case, the love triangle contained Victor Laszlo, the leader of a worldwide resistance movement against the Nazis. The difference is that in that film, we knew what motivated Laszlo. The film explains why he fought, why he had to win, and why he had to get out of Casablanca. And yet the film managed to convey all of that while keeping its focus squarely on the Rick/Ilsa/Laszlo triangle. That, gentle readers, is how a storyteller can have it both ways.
Before wrapping things up, I suppose I should mention the film’s comic relief. Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter step in to play the Thernardiers, and they do a better job than I might have expected. Even so, I found their cowardly and lecherous ways to get rather annoying and disgusting over time. I was much more taken with Gavroche, the clever and charming street urchin played by young Daniel Huttlestone in his film debut. That character was very entertaining, at least until he got killed off in bloody fashion.
Les Miserables is a frustrating movie for me. The good things about this movie are so incredibly good that it makes the horrible drawbacks all the more devastating. The music is phenomenal, but the visuals are crap. Hugh Jackman and Anne Hathaway turn in such incredible work that it’s almost enough to make up for a miscast Russell Crowe. Amanda Seyfried, Eddie Redmayne, and Samantha Barks all have wonderful voices that are wasted on totally dull characters.
In the end, it’s the actors and the music that make the film worth seeing. And this movie is totally worth seeing, don’t get me wrong, just keep your expectations in check is all I’m saying.