Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (March 18, 2013)
Fresh off an Oscar win for 2010’s The King’s Speech, it probably would have made sense for director Tom Hooper to take on another historical drama. With work on efforts like The Damned United and John Adams as well as Speech, that seemed to be the genre he preferred.
Given the raised profile that comes with Oscar success, Hooper likely had his pick of projects, and he chose another historical piece, but with a twist: a film adaptation of the stage musical Les Miserables.
Darned if Hooper didn’t make it work. Not only did 2012’s Les Mis do quite well financially - $147 million box office in the US alone – but it also received good reviews and snagged an Oscar nomination for Best Picture. Argo won that prize, but Les Mis took home three awards – including Best Supporting Actress for Anne Hathaway – and allowed Hooper to avoid the slump that so often affects Oscar winners.
Les Mis opens in France circa 1815 and introduces us to Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman), a prisoner who serves out a 19-year sentence simply because he stole a loaf of bread. (Actually, five years were for the theft; the additional 14 occurred because of escape attempts.) Lawman Javert (Russell Crowe) grudgingly lets Valjean go on parole, but he warns the ex-con to obey guidelines or suffer the consequences.
Though happy to be free, Valjean finds a harsh, unwelcoming world until he meets the Bishop of Digne (Colm Wilkinson). The Bishop gives Valjean food and shelter, but the ex-con immediately betrays his host and steals silver from the cathedral. When police capture Valjean, he claims he received the goods as a gift, and the Bishop maintains the lie to keep him free – though he instructs Valjean to change his ways.
Which Valjean does after he slips the conditions of his parole to adopt a new identity. This doesn’t escape the notice of the ruthless Javert, who swears to find Valjean and bring him to justice. The film follows that thread as well as what happens when a prosperous Valjean agrees to care for Cosette (Isabelle Allen as a child, Amanda Seyfried as an adult), the daughter of doomed factory worker Fantine (Hathaway).
Given that I wasn’t wild about King’s Speech and that I’m not a fan of musicals, I can’t say I greeted Les Mis with a lot of optimism. However, it managed to overcome those potential negatives to turn into a fairly involving and emotional experience.
One aspect of Les Mis separates it from most movie musicals: the staging of its songs. For one, it includes no dancing. Rather than throw out the usual collection of song ‘n’ dance numbers, the tunes exist as purely dramatic enterprises and they lack the standard prancing.
In addition, Les Mis includes almost no spoken dialogue. This doesn’t mean it offers wall-to-wall songs, however. While it probably comes with more tunes than most musicals, it still provides dialogue – it just asks its actors to sing the lines and not speak them.
I feared that’d become an annoying contrivance, but the “sung speech” works fine for the movie. Actually, this technique allows the shift from dialogue to songs to occur more smoothly than in most musicals. Since we always hear singing – and we get none of the standard “stop everything for a long dance routine” – the package fits together in a fluid manner. In many musicals, the production numbers come out of nowhere and cause the story to grind to a halt, but that doesn’t happen in Les Mis.
Though the film does provide a few scenes that almost turn into standard “musical showstopper” status. Probably the most obvious candidate comes with “Master of the House”, a sequence that seems to exist mainly as comic relief. Of all the movie’s segments, “Master” probably does the least to serve the overall narrative; while it does allow us to learn how awful Cosette’s caretakers are, it fails to advance the story in a notable way.
Still, that comic relief serves a purpose. Les Mis threatens to overwhelm with its gloom and misery, so a short break helps keep the viewer from suicide. Besides, “Master” delivers black humor, so it doesn’t seem out of place; it’s not a jarring change of tone ala “A Guy Like You” in Disney’s Hunchback of Notre Dame.
In any case, the movie does integrate its songs unusually well, and I appreciate the lack of true production numbers. I’m sure I could find another musical without dancing if I thought hard, but off the top of my head, none come to mind. It’s a choice that works for the film, especially because it means we avoid super-long diversions that threaten to drag the narrative off-course.
As far as that narrative goes, I think Les Mis remains most interesting in its first half. Granted, one could argue that the opening 70 minutes or so almost play as a prologue, and the second half – in which we meet an adult Cosette and see her relationship with suitor/revolutionary Marius (Eddie Redmayne) – provides the meat of the film. That portion also focuses on a student rebellion against French leadership, an affair in which Marius actively participates.
This means that while the Valjean/Javert plot remains in place, it takes a backseat to things revolutionary and romantic. Unfortunately, that also means the film’s second half seems spottier than the first. Not that the final 80 minutes or so bore; they come with some good drama and action.
But they just don’t live up to the opening half, and the reduced role played by Valjean/Javert takes its toll. No, I won’t argue that the movie should’ve played like a 19th century musical version of The Fugitive, but I still would’ve liked a stronger focus on the old adversaries. They bring the tale to life when they appear, and without them, it feels more ordinary.
Maybe I just have little patience for trite tales of young love, and I think the Cosette/Marius relationship qualifies. Heck, Les Mis even throws in the requisite third wheel via Marius’s fellow revolutionary Eponine (Samantha Barks), a babe utterly devoted to him. You win nothing if you determine her fate in advance – and the rest of the Cosette/Marius theme doesn’t tend to go much of anywhere remarkable, either.
Which is too bad, for much of the rest of the film works pretty well. Jackman provides an especially strong performance as Valjean; he handles the singing well and gives the role all the nuances it needs. Apparently many mocked Crowe’s vocals, but I take no offense at his gruff intonations; he meets the part’s dramatic requirements and carries a tune well enough to avoid embarrassment.
As for Hathaway, she does fine as Fontine, though I’m not sure she deserved an Oscar; heck, I found her work in Dark Knight Rises to be more impressive. The Academy likes to reward actresses who ugly up themselves, so Hathaway’s willingness to lose weight and chop off her hair – on camera, no less! – certainly must have endeared herself to the voters.
Don’t take as an indication I think Hathaway harms the part, though. She manages to accomplish what the brief role needs and gives the film some heart in its early moments. While I’m skeptical that she deserved the Oscar, she suits the movie pretty well.
Young lovers Seyfried and Redmayne do less to impress and fail to elevate their parts above their roots as generic pretty people. On the other hand, Barks packs a lot of spirit and emotion into her short turn as Eponine; she creates easily the most indelible character found in the film’s second half.
Hooper stages the film in a moderately effective manner. He got a lot of attention because he asked the actors to sing live on camera rather than lip-synch; I’m not sure this technique really benefits the film, but it may add a bit of immediacy that otherwise might be absent.
Hooper can’t bring a lot of zing to the production, though. Granted, one could argue a tale as dark and dramatic as Les Mis shouldn’t get the razzle-dazzle treatment such as what Rob Marshall gave to Chicago, but I can’t help but wish Hooper would liberate the production from its semi-stagnant feel. He uses handheld camerawork in a generic manner and fails to find much life in his choices. The movie remains effective but I think it could’ve been staged in a more evocative manner.
At least Hooper stays out of the way of the material and doesn’t shoot himself in the foot. While not the most vivid film musical I’ve seen, Les Miserables nonetheless manages to remain involving and emotional through much of its running time. It ends up as a quality production with some modest problems but no glaring flaws.