Les Misérables follows the life of Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) who is released from a 19-year sentence and has to try to find a new life after losing two decades in hard slave-work. But Valjean can never rest easy for Javert (Russell Crowe) is always on his heels reminding him that once a criminal always a criminal. In the eyes of Javert a man like Valjean deserves no second chance and will always be a thief. The conflict of redemption hope and how tiny good deeds can redeem a man and change people is played against the background of the June Rebellion (1832) a student-led revolution against the monarchy.
A lot to chew
This was a “short” synopsis of Les Misérables and I didn’t mention the role everybody keeps talking about: Anne Hathaway as Fantine a woman down on her luck who has to sell everything from her hair to her body in order to feed her little child Cosette (Isabelle Allen and later Amanda Seyfried). Mostly because her character – while deservedly Oscar-nominated –plays only such a little part in this character stuffed drama. Just taking a look at the poster one sees that not even the marketing can really decide what characters it should focus on and slams everyone into the mix.
So the source material is a very ripe and layered story full of loyalties, betrayals and of course singing.
The long road to watching the movie
I was very antagonist towards this movie. Mostly because I am not a fan of The King’s Speech because I find it to be a by-the-numbers Oscar-bait product. And reading that the director (Tom Hooper) decided to adapt a massive musical to the big screen screamed “Oscar-bait #2”. So to ease my cynicism my therapist recommended watching the musical beforehand. So after having watched a musical recording and going through all the songs with my self-help-chorus I was moderately positive or at least not as negative as I would have been had I not seen the musical.
(ignore all the names of the characters if you don’t know the musical or skip to the next point if you just want to get a quick review without pretentious over-analysis)
Not very surprisingly Les Misérables features some amazing voice performances:
- Hathaway has a short but poignant I dreamed a dream
- Samantha Barks is a brilliant overlooked Éponie (but then she was already fantastic in the 25th anniversary of the musical)
- Hugh Jackman is a pretty good Valjean
- Eddie Redmayne is a solid as Marius the student rebel especially when he has to make up for Amanda Seyfried’s constant tremolos
- Sacha Baron Cohen is a delightfully sleazy Master of the House
- Equally entertaining Helena Bonham Carter as Cohen’s mistress yet while she has a natural charm her acting is not more fleshed out than standard Tim Burton-crazy-acting
- Isabelle Allen as young Cosette is very good and for a child actor especially “un-annoying”
- On the downside Russell Crowe’s turn at the righteous Javert doesn’t really flatter the actor but he is not as terrible as most reviews suggest
- I was more annoying by Amanda Seyfried’s constant vibrating voice, she sounds like a high pitched bird and I don’t care if it was intentional or unintentional it really bothered me more than Crowe’s stale Javert
Was a movie adaption really necessary?
Bottom line I enjoyed Les Misérables. Probably much more than I thought I would a few months ago. For musical fans it is probably a pure 2.5 hours joytrip. Especially the fact that the actors sung their songs live of set (guaranteed sound mixing Oscar) adds to the performances and gives the movie a bit more musical-flair than the usual movie production where you know that the song was recorded afterwards. So while you know it has probably been a million takes before Hathaway’s I dreamed a dream sounded as it did on screen you are impressed that the song is done in one single take (probably deliberately orchestrated like this for Oscar buzz but that doesn’t detract from the intensity).
So in a way the movie is more musical than movie but it also is a musical adaption that will not convert many people who try to avoid musicals as much as possible. The entire orchestration of the film is a bit of a bummer the more one thinks about it. Instead of using the cinematic tools at his hands Tom Hooper has basically delivered what can only be described as a Les Misérables musical with expensive sets, costumes and make-up. Other than that the cinematic experience takes a backseat as we go from song to song.
The entire orchestration of the songs is done with a load of close ups of whoever is currently singing. There is no camerawork involved to lead us from one singer to the next instead we cut directly to the person raising his or her voice. The only notable exception would be Sacha Bron Cohen’s song Master of the House where the foul nature of his trickster character is beautifully and playfully orchestrated with many shots and ideas that you would not be able to pull off in a musical.
There are also some very self-explanatory songs where characters state obvious conflicts (a lot of Hugh Jackman’s songs) that seem a bit superfluous when one considers how the camera already tells us all this without the songs.
So in the end I am very happy I knew what I was up for – especially since knowing the number of songs I didn’t feel the length that much. The great songs of the play are still great but the ones you usually skip in your playlist are as unremarkable as usual. I don’t regret watching the film and enjoyed it quite a deal but at the same time I feel as if there was a lot of opportunity and potential that the movie didn’t really use.