I can’t say that I’ve ever found time in my schedule to read all 1500 pages of Victor Hugo’s novel “Les Misérables” and I’ve also never seen a performance of the musical “Les Misérables,” or any other Broadway musical for that matter. That said, Claude-Michel Schönberg’s musical has held a strange place on the periphery of pop culture that few stage productions have ever held. All my life I’ve seen cartoon parodies of the play which almost certainly went straight over the heads of every kid who watched them, I’ve laughed as George Costanza stumbled through an entire episode of Seinfeld with “Master of the House” stuck in his head, and I’ve read Patrick Bateman psychotically musing about its apparently obnoxious publicity campaign that saturated New York in the 80s. I’ve also heard innumerable people refer to the play by the obnoxious nick-name “Les Miz” because they want to sound sophisticated without going through the trouble of learning the pronunciation of a single French word. That Hollywood finally got in on this brand name and made an all-star, huge budget adaptation of the musical kind of feels like the finale to a very long pop culture sensation that grew way bigger than its creators possibly could have dreamed.
Beneath all the bombast, this is indeed a retelling of Victor Hugo’s story of obsession and revolution in early 19th century Paris. The central storyline is a duel of wills between an ex-con named Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) and a soldier/police-inspector named Javert (Russell Crowe). Javert spends much of the story trying to track down Valjean for having broken his parole, even after Valjean has cleaned up his life and become a successful businessman under a different name. Javert finally catches up to Valjean only after Valjean has sworn to protect Cosette (Isabelle Allen), the daughter of a fallen woman named Fantine (Anne Hathaway), who has been adopted by a pair of cruel and unscrupulous innkeepers called the Thénardiers (Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter). Valjean eventually escapes with Cosette, but all of these character’s lives will eventually come to a head years later during the failed June Rebellion.
You can tell why someone looking to make an epic musical would look to a story which is as big and operatic as “Les Misérables,” but the film does occasionally struggle to bring all of Hugo’s elaborate story into a commercially viable running time while still having time for all the music. For one thing, all the characters seem to coincidentally bump into each other way too often. That might have seemed more reasonable within the confines of a stage production or within the context of a long novel in which the passage of time seems more slow, but in a film it kind of feels like a cheat to have everyone in the cast cross paths this many times as if the city of Paris were some kind of tiny village. The film also doesn’t really do a great job of explain why Javert is so fixated on catching this one particular convict. I get that he’s a man who sees things in black and white and would never forgive a criminal, but surely there have been convicts in the French prison system more deserving of all this trouble. A scene or two explaining why he’s made such a personal vendetta out of his pursuit would have been helpful.
Those who hear “musical” and think of giddy light-hearted vaudeville-inspired sequences filled with smiling people dancing may be either disappointed or pleasantly surprised by what they get out of Les Misérables. The music in this film is loud and omnipresent. Very few lines of dialogue are spoken rather than sung and the music doesn’t really take the form of “numbers.” There are some sequences that can be called full-on songs but there are also a number of moments where the characters sing lines that are clearly meant to be expository dialogue to each other rather than speak them, and it’s in these sequences that the film’s music is at its most awkward. The main songs, to my layman ears, sound like they’re sung quite well. There have been many critics who have put on their Simon Cowell hats and criticized some of the performer’s voices, but none of the singing I heard really affected my enjoyment at all so I’m not going to nit-pick any of that. That said, I can’t say that the film’s much-publicized use of live recording made much of an impression on me at all and if you’d told me that this music was recorded in the sound-booth like any other musical I probably wouldn’t have known the difference.
This is of course director Tom Hooper’s follow-up to his undeservedly Academy Award winning The King’s Speech and it is kind of interesting to see what he can do when making a large scale period piece while armed with a substantial budget. The main stylistic trick that Hooper featured in The King’s Speech was a tendency towards concise but deliberately off-center framing, and anyone who’s seen his work on the “John Adams” miniseries knows that the guy is kind of obsessed with Dutch angles, and he uses both of these tricks extensively in Les Misérables with mostly successful results. He also employs a technique in which the actors sing while directly facing the camera while in extreme close-up, a trick which was perhaps meant to replicate the aesthetics of an actor facing his or her audience from the stage. The guy is clearly not a master, but he does have an eye for the occasional interesting shot and he also seems to have rallied his production crew pretty effectively here because the film’s set decoration, cinematography, editing, etc. are all very strong in the film.
Hooper’s cast is also pretty solid here, especially in the film’s first half. Hugh Jackman’s affinity for musical theater is pretty well documented he works well here in part because, as fans of his work as Wolverine in the X-Men films will attest, he is also fully capable of being a badass. This means he can sing effectively and also be believable as a former criminal. Russell Crowe isn’t an effete thespian either and he brings a strong physical presence to his role as a police inspector. Crowe has received a lot of criticism for his singing voice, but I (again, speaking as a layman) thought he did well enough and would also suggest that part of the problem is that Crowe’s character is given a lot of the musical’s clunkier moments of “exposition in song form.” Anne Hathaway is also good in the film, but the film’s advertising has greatly exaggerated how big her role in the film is. Her character has a big role in the film’s first act, but she’s written out of the film shortly thereafter. Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter (who are having something of a Sweeny Todd reunion) do good work as the film’s comic relief, but a little bit of them goes a long way and their presence in the film gets a little awhile as they keep on coming back over and over again in the film’s second half.
It’s that second half where the film really started to lose me. (Spoiler alert here, I guess). At a certain point the film flashes forward and swaps generations. Here the film turns into a teenage love triangle between a now older Cosette (Amanda Seyfried), a young revolutionary named Marius Pontmercy (Eddie Redmayne), and one of Cosette’s childhood friends named Éponine (Samantha Barks) which leads into a largish battle scene. It’s kind of like Titanic in miniature but with characters you don’t care about and unfamiliar actors who don’t make you care. To say that this is a weak second half is an understatement, this is more like a nosedive, and it’s also where the film’s generally long length really started to make itself known. It also has the most false endings since Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King and by the time it finally reaches its lengthy and mostly needless coda I was very ready to finally leave the theater.
That’s a shame, because this is definitely a film that “has its moments.” There’s a solid 70-80 minutes of the movie that really had me interested, but the other 78 minutes really killed the movie for me. It’s tempting to give the film a pass for the moments that work and out of a certain respect for the film’s production elements, but I can’t really recommend something in good conscience when it had me looking at my watch for its last forty-five minutes. Fans of the original musical or of musicals in general will likely be more impressed, but I don’t think this is really one for the cross-over audience when all is said and done.
**1/2 out of Four