jason stives is master of the house…
A film like Les Miserables sadly falls at the time of year when musicals released around award season are deemed Oscar bait. Even with a healthy reputation, it feels like a sure fire way to get some award nominations and no doubt films Chicago and Nine fell into that category. However, taking such a well-acclaimed musical and giving it a big screen treatment is risky business and going into this I was very skeptical. Thankfully, having a girlfriend who is very familiar with the famous 1980 musical helped me going into a viewing of Tom Hooper’s film adaptation starring Hugh Jackman, Anne Hathaway, and Russell Crowe.
While my familiarity with the story is somewhat vivid thanks in part to a viewing of a late 90s non-musical version with Liam Neeson and Geoffrey Rush, my knowledge of this classic musical is limited to a few choice songs — but I was anxious to learn them. Ultimately, Les Miserables is a serviceable adaptation of the musical, with some strong performances and a story that stays very close to the source material — but is flawed in casting choices and its presentation.
Set years after the French Revolution, Les Miserables tells the tale of petty bread stealer Jean Valjean (Jackman) who is being released on parole after 19 years of imprisonment. After breaking parole at the hands of a bishop, he sets up shop as a factory owner and mayor of Montreuil-sur-Mer, but his peace is broken by the appearance of Inspector Javert (Crowe), the man who issued him his freedom. He befriends a lonely peasant named Fantine (Hathaway), who is secretly sending money to her daughter who is living with two innkeepers. After Fantine dies Valjean vows to take care of her daughter Cosette (Amanda Seyfried) while staying clear of the pursuit of Javert and the two ultimately end up in Paris during a resistance uprising.
It comes as no surprise that Hugh Jackman delivers a stellar performance as Jean Valjean, despite some moments of over showmanship. The key to watching film adaptations of famous musicals is to take the performances the way you would watching them in the theater — which is you want to feel the emotions not see them. Jackman at times lets the shouting in the dark restraints of the theater shine when they aren’t necessary but most of the times he is putting as much poise and feeling into a weary father figure repaying a debt and I don’t think I could see anyone else in this role. Same goes for Eddie Redmayne’s performance as Marius which is a surprise standout especially in his performance of the moving number “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables.” Much like his performance in last year’s My Week with Marilyn the doey-eyed wonderment of Redmayne’s performance feels so personal and passionate even if it’s expected based on his track record as an actor.
There are other well-rounded performances including Helena Bonham Carter and Sasha Baron Cohen as the Thenardiers but sadly not all is perfect. For all the hype behind the performances of Anne Hathaway and Amanda Seyfried, respectfully as mother and daughters Fantine and Cosette, we’ve got to look beyond the hype in order to really judge how powerful these performances actually are.
Let’s focus on the weakest which goes to Amanda Seyfried. Cosset is not a very prominent character to begin with and for the most part is a very bland character, so it’s fitting that a bland actor like Seyfried play this role. To her credit, she does have a lovely singing voice even if she breaks up on a couple high notes. Hathaway, on the other hand, shows off her singing chops with as much emotion imaginable despite a short time on screen. Her rendition of the iconic “I Dreamed a Dream” is quite moving and a highlight of her performance even if I wouldn’t put her presence in this film as a monumental one … let alone an award-winner.
Speaking of miscasting — shame on the casting director for thinking Russell Crowe could do a serviceable job as Javert. Look I have a soft spot for Mr. Crowe, he IS a very good actor but he should’ve never seen one minute of screen time here. The thing about Javert, and this is something you notice in boat loads in the 1998 film version where Geoffrey Rush played the inspector, is that Javert has a certain tenacity and conviction towards hunting Valjean that goes beyond simply pursuing a bread stealer. On the contrary, the thing absent for the most part here is Javert’s back story which is only hinted. This would explain that Javert grew up the child of a prostitute and a convict, making his harsh feelings towards Valjean more motivated, than how its portrayed. Crowe also is a poor singer, not a horrible one but you feel like his performances of key songs like “Stars” have no passion behind them and that goes double for his on screen chemistry with Jackman — which should be far more palpable than it’s portrayed.
Beyond some of the stale performances, the film suffers from a lack of craft in its presentation. While my girlfriend did note that the play focuses more on the characters, obviously than the scenery for the film, you can’t skimp on details. Tom Hooper isn’t the most clever director and his constant use of close-ups and panning shots really starts to jar after the fourth or fifth time. I contend, as a director, he should’ve never won the Best picture Oscar for the The King’s Speech despite some amazing performances. And his inabilities as a formidable director show here. It seems trivial to focus on the attention to detail, but when you consider the grandiose scale of movie musicals, it’s so subdued here when you want so much more. For the little I knew of the stage production I always knew of the importance of the barricade and for something so iconic it’s only utilized visually twice and that’s it. I could take the notion of one revolving set in the vein of stage production if it was implied but when you have wide panning CGI shots of a capsizing ship and the city of Paris you want the gusto within the sets itself and it’s just not there.
Les Miserables much like many modern day Hollywood musicals are a tough pill to swallow to today’s audiences and the pension for being Oscar bait doesn’t help them at all and it doesn’t here despite an obvious show of effort. The film is very faithful to its source material but seems to lack the spirit and care of its voice that has made it one of the most memorable and endearing musicals of the past century. Despite some very honorable performances its hurt by the some miscasts and a lack of heart that for a casual movie goer will hurt the final impression but might measure up to fans of this beloved musical.
Rating: 6.5 out of 10 (Good not Great)