Friday, December 28, 2012

Les Misérables

It was an interesting car ride home after an early morning screening of Les Misérables. The film sparked an interesting debate between my wife and I regarding how one analyzes film musicals. The question was raised as to whether or not it is truly possible to separate the music from the actual film when every bit of dialogue is sung? For my wife, Les Misérables was an engrossing experience that moved her deeply. As a fan of the musical, she thought Tom Hooper’s adaptation was a rousing success. I on the other hand, was a virgin to all things Les Misérables and found the film to be enjoyable, but ultimately flawed.

Starting in 1815, and spanning seventeen years, the film tells the tragic tale of Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman), a man who is forever cursed by past sins. After spending seven years in prison for stealing food for his sister’s ailing child, Valjean is finally released on parole. However, Valjean soon realizes that life on parole is just as hard. He is treated with the same lack of respect and dignity by others that he experienced when in prison at the hands of the ruthless guard, Javert (Russell Crowe). Fed up with his status in society, Valjean breaks his parole and spends the next eight years reinventing himself as a prominent businessman and mayor of Montreuil-sur-Mer.

Despite living the life of an honourable man, the past soon closes in on Valjean when Javet, now a police inspector, appears at his factory one day. Although Javet does not recognize him, the impromptu visit is enough to rattle Valjean to the point of distraction. As a result he does not take notice of his foreman abruptly firing one of his workers, Fantine (Anne Hathaway), who is struggling to provide for her daughter Cosette (Isabelle Allen). Losing her job has grave ramifications for Fantine as she resorts to prostitution just to get by.

Once Valjean becomes aware of the situation, he vows to take care of Fantine, whose health is diminishing, and Cosette. Unfortunately, Valjean soon finds himself on the run again after circumstances lead him to reveal his true identity to the law. Before leaving though, Valjean must collect Cosette from a pair of scheming innkeepers, Thénardier (Sacha Baron Cohen) and his wife Madame Thénardier (Helena Bonham Carter), who shower their daughter Éponine (Natalya Angel Wallace) with love while treating Cosette like the help.

Nine years go by before the lives of Valjean, Cosette (now played by Amanda Seyfried), Javet and the innkeepers all intersect again. Paris is now on the brink of upheaval as the poor are becoming increasingly hostile and local students, like Marius Pontmercy (Eddie Redmayan), are trying to organize a revolution. Marius has long been the object of Éponine (now played by Samantha Barks) affection, but his heart belongs to Cosette after a chance encounter on the street. As tension in the city rising, Javet closing in, and love blossoming between Marius and Cosette, Valjean realizes that a great change is coming.

There is much to like in Les Misérables as many of the acting performances and songs are executed quite well. Both Hugh Jackman and Anne Hathaway are thrilling in their given roles and provide many of the film’s stirring emotional moments. However, it is the minor supporting players who frequently steal the show. Samantha Barks is so good as the older Éponine that you actually wish Marius and Éponine were the star-crossed lovers of the film. Young Daniel Huttlestone is quiet good as the streetwise scamp Gavroche. Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter also manage to steal a few scenes bringing much needed levity to the production. The pair revel in their characters, but never feel overly cartoonish.

If there is a weak link in the acting department, it is Russell Crowe’s performance as Javet. Though Crowe has proven through his side music projects that he has the vocal chops, he never seems to truly sell any of the songs he sings. Furthermore he lacks the emotion needed to truly make Javet an interesting character. His facial expressions stay the same regardless of whether Javet is stoic, angry, or emotionally conflicted.

From a visual standpoint Les Misérables is a bit of a mixed bag. Tom Hooper is a director who knows how to handle large historical productions, but he never manages to capture the visual flare he is striving for. The opening number is easily the most visually stunning moment in the entire film. Hooper creates a lush feel to the film as the prisoners haul in a large ship while the unforgiving water rains down on them. The scene feels like it is setting you up for more of the same throughout the film, unfortunately that never happens. As side from a few statues the film, similar to The Kings Speech, is rather bland from a visual standpoint.

Fortunately those going into Les Misérables will be going for the music more than the visuals. On that level the film succeeds fairly well. Not every song works, but the ones that do play extremely well on the big screen. Songs like Valjean/chain gang’s “Look Down”, Fantine’s “I Dreamed a Dream”, Éponine’s “On My Own” and Thénardier’s “Master of the House” stay with you long after the film ends. Considering how long the film feels, the editing could have been much tighter, it is a testament to the film that several of the musical numbers left their mark. Like the revolution at its core, Les Misérables is a valiant, but ultimately flawed, endeavour that will get its message across but not necessarily make you want to join the cause.


  1. Solid review Courtney. Hugh Jackman may very well give Daniel Day Lewis a run for his money come Oscar time. I wouldn't be sad to see either of them win; they both did a great job. This is definitely worth a watch.

    1. I still need to get around to Lincoln but, from what I hear, Daniel Day Lewis seems to have the best actor award locked up. Though a lot can happen between now and then.

  2. I really want to see this. It's been interesting to hear that Crowe's performance was sub-par, he's not exactly known for being in-expressive, but then again Javet seems like a thankless role.

    1. Apparently Javet is supposed to be a character who is an important piece to the emotional core of the musical. Unfortunately, Crowe does not do a good job conveying this.


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