Monday, December 31, 2012

Film Review - "Les Misérables"

A review of Les Misérables after the jump:

"I had a dream my life would be / So different from this hell I'm living / So different now than what it seems / Now life has killed the dream I dream". The last four lines of this iconic song are some of the most powerful in any musical ever, but somehow they're made even more potent than usual by Anne Hathaway and Tom Hooper. The former delivers a desperate, brutal, and devastating rendition of the song that surpasses any other interpretation I've heard. She will almost certainly win an Oscar for it in a few months, and deservedly so. For his part, Hooper elects to frame her in close-up, then allows the camera to record the emotions which appear on her defeated face in a single, unbroken shot. This combination of simple yet beautiful camerawork and brilliant acting leads to a scene that is utterly haunting, and by far the finest moment in Les Misérables.

However, there are other scenes which rival it, many of them marked by the same approach: a single actor, framed in close-up, singing and acting her or his heart out while the camera captures the performance, usually with minimal editing. Hooper has gotten a lot of flak as a director ever since The King's Speech (none of it deserved, as the problems that movie has are almost all script-related) won Best Picture over the superior The Social Network two years ago, and while he's certainly no Scorsese or Fincher, there are a number of shots in Les Misérables that are just stunningly composed. He perhaps is a bit too much in love with Dutch angles in this movie, but the individual pieces of the film are almost all beautifully built, whether it's another gorgeous close-up of a lone actor in "Stars" or "On My Own", an elegantly filmed overview of workers in a factory during "At the End of the Day", or a masterful series of cuts between various characters in "One Day More".

What Hooper has failed to do, however, is combine these pieces effectively, and in a way that doesn't feel rushed. The temptation to move quickly from song to song is understandable, as there is a ton of stuff going on in Les Mis. First of all, there's the story of Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman), a convict who has spent nearly two decades of his life as a slave after stealing a loaf of bread. The film follows his odyssey from beginning to end. Along the way, however, his life intersects with a number of other characters: starting with police inspector Javert (Russell Crowe) and a young woman named Fantine (Hathaway). After his actions lead to Fantine's hospitalization and then death, he promises her that he'll raise her child Cosette. Years later, we meet a group of students planning a revolution, including Marius (Eddie Redmayne). He and Cosette (Amanda Seyfried) fall in love, leaving Marius's friend Eponine (Samantha Barks) heartbroken. Meanwhile, Javert continues to hunt Valjean.

See what I mean? And that doesn't even cover everything. Unfortunately, in their attempts to fit all this material into a 157 minute movie, Hooper and company have often ignored such vital things as the occasional pause between songs. The second half of Les Misérables in particular never really stops to breathe, instead leaping from scene to scene and song to song without taking any real time to transition naturally between them. The film just doesn't flow particularly well, and almost feels like it's more concerned with including all the key moments from the stage musical than with ensuring that the overall story is successful. It speaks to how strong those moments are—and how well they're generally handled, both visually and musically—that the movie still manages to mostly work in spite of how disjointed and poorly paced much of it is.

The performances are of course a huge reason for the film's success. Or at least, most of them are. Unfortunately, there are several weak links in the cast, most notably Russell Crowe as Javert. While he does a good job of embodying the character, he struggles with the singing throughout, which is a huge problem considering the fact that he sings more than any other actor aside from Jackman. It's not an awful performance, but it's definitely the weakest of the main cast. If you want awful, look no further than Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen as the Thénardiers, whose "Master of the House" is both terribly sung and dreadfully boring. In fairness to them, this number's attempts at humor are so lousy that the Marx Brothers probably wouldn't have even been able to rescue it (it's easily the worst song in the film, although I love it in the stage version), but their (thankfully brief) later scenes fare little better. This is somewhat surprising to me, as both of them were terrific—and sang reasonably well—in the film version of Sweeney Todd. Perhaps the live singing element had something to do with it. But for whatever reason, they're easily the worst part of Les Misérables.

Jackman, on the other hand, is excellent. His intense version of "Who Am I?" is a highlight, and he even manages to hit most of the high notes in "Bring Him Home". Next to Hathaway, he also gives the best performance in the film in terms of pure acting. Occasionally his vocals suffer a bit because of how committed he is to the character's emotions, but never so much that it impacts the songs enormously. In any case, the trade off is well worth it. Seyfried and Redmayne have less to do (to me, Marius and Cosette have always been the least interesting characters in Les Mis), but both sing beautifully. Lastly, there's Barks, who is terrific as Eponine and does a fine job singing my favorite song in the score: "On My Own" (although the introduction to the song was sadly cut).

Watching Les Misérables is deeply frustrating at times. Just about every time a new song ("Master of the House" and Javert's songs aside) begins, it's bliss. (This is also as good a time as any to mention how lovely "Suddenly" is. While I love the stage version of Les Mis as is, I certainly wouldn't object if this song was added to it in the future.)  But the song only lasts so long, and the movie is on shakier ground when it's moving from one scene to the next. Sometimes it does so effectively, but not often enough. This plus the problems with several of the performances ultimately make the film a moderate disappointment. It attains greatness on more than one occasion, but it can never sustain that level of quality for a substantial length of time. Still, it's a fairly solid adaptation of a great work of musical theatre, and a film that's worth watching for several of the performances alone.

Grade: B


  1. Hmm, as someone who HATED Les Miz, I'm kind of glad you were underwhelmed, and yet, I wanted you to love it so that we could have another musical we could argue about.

    That said, there's definitely a lot to appreciate in this movie, but I just wasn't moved my anything that was going on onscreen.

    1. It definitely wasn't as good as I wanted it to be. But my love for the musical is so strong that the flaws (though not small) couldn't completely ruin it: not when most of the songs were staged and sung fairly well.

      Was this your first experience with "Les Mis"? If so, you really should check out some of the concerts that have been done over the years (several of them are available on DVD). They're much better than the film.

    2. It wasn't, I've read the book and own the 25 Anniversary concert DVD.

      Agreed, that one is better than the movie.