Movie Review: Les Miserables

Tom Hooper's Les Miserables is as ambitious as it is uneven, but the highlights are not easily overlooked.

The Les Miserables story dates back to an 1862 novel written by Victor Hugo. The decade-spanning tale of revolution era France was, naturally, much more current at the time it was first penned. But the musical version of Les Miserables, which started in France in 1980, has allowed the timeless and relatable themes to be enjoyed by generations who know nothing of the era in which the story takes place. While numerous film adaptations of Hugo's original novel have been made, 2012 marks the first time that the musical finds its way to the big screen after years of attempts and stalled productions.

Following up his 2010 Academy Award winning The King's Speech, director Tom Hooper took a big risk when he decided to take on the sprawling, beloved epic - he chose to have the actors sing live. And, while this results in not every note being perfectly spot on (that's part of the appeal), the approach definitely lends a level of authenticity to the film that most musicals sorely lack.

I'll be brief with the summary as there's a lot going on over the course of the two hour and forty minute run time and, well, many people know the basics of the story already. The story begins in 1815 with Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman), a former prisoner who breaks parole and assumes a different identity in an attempt to free himself of his past and live an honest life. Unfortunately, a no-nonsense and obsessed prison guard named Javert (Russell Crowe) tirelessly hunts Valjean over the better part of the next two decades, all the way up until the early 1830s as Paris trembles with rebellion.

Valjean remains the main character throughout, even when he isn't the primary focus. Other characters enter the picture as time goes on, some memorable, others not as much. But it's Valjean who most visibly carries the thematic burdens of regret, redemption, love, and sacrifice, even as other characters echo some or all of these as well.

Fans of the music won't be disappointed by Les Miserables. That may sound like a given, but a lot has been made of the effect the live signing has on the songs themselves. Yes, there might be slight liberties taken with some of the arrangements and melodies, and there are imperfections, but these are the result of actual acting while singing. Personally, I had a far greater appreciation for these singing performances as opposed to artificial mimicry. And I found the quality of singing to be pretty strong throughout, the highlights being the solo performances by Anne Hathaway (Fantine) and Samantha Barks (Eponine), and the bombastic revolutionary anthem.

Russell Crowe, likely the least polished singer of the cast, gives the most understated performance of the group. In a story known for melodramatics (Jackman has a flair for the melodramatics, sometimes going a little too far), Crowe is more subtle, his imposing persona aided by camerawork and staging that often places him above the other characters.

Fans of the story itself might have more of a gripe. Due in part to the sheer volume of material that needed to be packed in to an already lengthy movie, there are major portions that feel very rushed. The first thirty-ish minutes (maybe a bit more) in particular were a complete mess, jumping from scene to scene without a moment to breathe, or a moment to acclimate to the introduction of new characters.

The issue isn't helped by Hooper and cinematographer Danny Cohen's near shaky cam which is at its worst in the early stages. One of Valjean's first soliloquies, a scene that should carry some emotional weight, is all but ruined by the literal and figurative in-your-face, frantic camerawork. Once Anne Hathaway breaks into her stirring rendition of "I Dreamed a Dream" (yes, it's as good as advertised), the film finds a groove. It sounds backwards, but when Hooper slows things down the film significantly picks up.

Hathaway's scene is indicative of what makes Les Miserables work so well at times and not as well at others. The bulk of her song is shot in a single take, and the film works best when it pulls back, and allows the actors/singers to wow us with these songs that many people know so well. Samantha Barks' later "On My Own" is another example of the good versus the bad - the scene, probably the second most effective here, is cut immediately after Barks spits out the last word.

Again, we have a great sequence with minimal takes that is rushed off screen to move the story along. Not that I would have wanted the film to necessarily be longer than it already was, but there are scenes along the way that could have been tightened or cut to allow more breathing room around "show-stoppers."

With the scale and ambition of Hooper's on-screen adaptation comes some ups and downs. The ups are emotional and memorable while the downs can be very frustrating. I guess "uneven" would be an accurate description.


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