Movie Review: Les Miserables
By Matthew Huntley
January 1, 2013
Tom Hooper’s Les Misérables is the first incarnation of this story I’ve had the pleasure of experiencing. I’ve not read Victor Hugo’s original 1862 novel or seen the immensely popular stage musical. It’s hard to believe I’ve also missed one of the previous feature film adaptations, since there have been at least four before this one. What are my two thoughts? Upon leaving theater, two crossed my mind: 1) the filmmakers have utilized nearly all their resources and made an often stupendous, vivacious production; 2) it probably could have been better.
That last observation may sound a tad harsh, but most musicals seem inherently prone to being “over”-produced, and this one is no exception. It’s grand, striking and lively, but it’s also 2 hours and 40 minutes, which also makes it exhausting, particularly toward the end when the filmmakers feel the need to drag it out and tie up the remaining plot threads. By the time the last 20 minutes roll around, it’s safe to say the audience has had enough.
Still, the film is never without energy. Like the stage musical, this filmed musical is 95% lyrics. Of the little dialogue there is, it merely serves to bridge plot points. Because most of story is conveyed through song, it should stand to reason they’re well sung and passionately performed, and fortunately they are. The cast imparts the emotions of the characters with dynamism and we’re immediately enveloped by their voices and expressions. And it’s not just the music and characterizations that enthrall us, but other cinematic and narrative elements like the locations, sets, drama, humor and romance. This is classic storytelling and we allow it to capture us that way.
The story begins in 1815 France, where a convict named Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) is released from prison. Valjean is our protagonist, but he’s perhaps painted as too-glorified a hero - he was only a prisoner in the first place because he stole bread to feed his sister’s dying daughter. Nevertheless, he’s sympathetic and we care about him. After a 19-year sentence, he makes parole, but not before the wicked guard Javert (Russell Crowe) orders him to carry a heavy French flag pole out of the mud. Valjean’s incredible strength will stay with Javert when the two cross paths in the future.
Eight years later, Valjean, who has assumed a new identity after learning French society is not too kind to ex-convicts, is a successful factory owner and mayor of a town called Montreuil. His new name and status were the results of him breaking parole and Javert is onto him when he sees Valjean lift a cart off a man in the street. Javert now makes it his mission to expose him, or perhaps kill him.
In a side story, one of Valjean’s factory workers is a peasant girl named Fantine (Anne Hathaway). When her colleagues and supervisor discover she has a daughter named Cosette, whom she bore out of wedlock, she’s immediately banished to the street. She sells her hair and takes to prostitution for survival, eventually succumbing to sickness. Before she dies, Valjean, being the good-hearted, honorable man that he is, and seeking redemption for allowing Fantine to be unjustly cast off, promises to look after Cosette, who’s so far been living with the thieving and corrupt Monsieur and Madame Thénardier (Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter), who lure people into their inn and steal from them.
Nine more years pass before we meet the last major character, Marius (Eddie Redmayne), a young, liberal-minded radical who stands among others to fight against the ruling conservative party. One day, a now grown-up Cosette (Amanda Seyfried) catches Marius’ eye and suddenly his political views don’t matter as much, nor does the wooing of Éponine (Samantha Barks), the daughter of the Thénardiers. Marius and Cosette experience love at first sight and their affair develops along classic Shakespearean lines - forbidden by circumstances such as class, war and society.
All the stories and characters eventually culminate with the June Rebellion in 1832, when the people’s love, convictions and sacrifices intertwine and are put to the ultimate test. Hooper’s vision is sweeping and grandiose and the film never stops moving, which allows it to hold up the high drama and accent the motivations of the characters. The actors are convincing and passionate yet refrain from over-reaching. This is a good movie in every sense of the word and the time, effort and budget to bring a musical version to the big screen have been well spent.
With that said, I wouldn’t go so far as to call the film inspired. Hooper and his team of screenwriters seem so keen on being faithful to the source material - namely the musical - that the film never breaks free to become something bold and original. Although I haven’t sampled any of the other media or adaptations of Les Misérables, and therefore have nothing to compare it to, I’m willing to bet it’s a lot like the stage musical and therefore restricted to simply being a filmed version of it, even though it’s a very good one.
But as such, it sacrifices innovation. This circles back to my initial impression: the film is solid, but it could have been done better, and if not necessarily “better,” perhaps more ambitious or just different. As it is, it’s a passionate rendition, involving and entertaining, lush and beautiful, but I’m guessing the stage musical has the same qualities, and therefore it’s something many viewers will have previously sampled, although it’s still enough to incur satisfaction.