Review: Les Miserables


I confess that prior to viewing Tom Hooper’s bombastic cinematic interpretation of the stage musical “Les Miserables,” itself extrapolated from Victor Hugo’s weighty tome, I had never heard the people sing, nor had I ever ventured to crack open Hugo’s opus. What I have been provided here through the cinema, is an elephantine epic, taking place over decades, yearning to reveal the lives of ordinary citizens enduring extraordinary times. Lauded for decades on both the stage and on the page, perhaps a tale as sweeping as Les Miserables deserved to be seen at 24 frames per second. Indeed, though Hooper’s film offers sights to be seen and songs to be heard, ultimately little is truly felt.

It must be said upfront that I have a strong bias against most musicals on celluloid. Some can be wonderfully entertaining yes, but the inherent, well, theatricality, ultimately works best on stage, where musicals can unashamedly flaunt their larger than life productions. I concede that cinema knows no shortages of BIG and BOLD, yet what makes film work in opposition to theatre is its superior ability to make the intimate equal to the expansive. In Les Miserables we are presented with countless attempts at intimacy and realism, but we too often end up with smallness and theatricality. In early 19th century France, Jean Valjean (a committed, but unaffecting Hugh Jackman) is a newly freed man, imprisoned for nineteen years all for stealing a loaf of bread. Looked down upon by many whom he meets, the man vows to change his life, becoming a man of the bourgeoise. Having violated his lifelong parole, Valjean even changes his identity so when his would be captor meets him, Javert (a solid Russell Crowe) fails to recognize him. When Valjean indirectly causes the dismissal of a young factory worker (Anne Hathaway), he vows to take her destitute daughter into his care. The girl, Cosette (Isabelle Allen and Amanda Seyfried) grows into a fine young woman, falling in love with a lad in the crosshairs of the 1832 June Rebellion. Meanwhile, Valjean’s identity has been discovered, and remains on the run from Javert.

There is no doubt that the scale and scope of Les Miserables is massive, so much so that the 2 1/2 hour run time of the film makes everything feel compressed. Despite the endless possibilities of narrative tension and development of characters, the film fails to carry across any of these arcs effectively. What makes this experience more frustrating is that surely these characters were full and complex in Hugo’s original narrative, but here it feels like we’re given a condensed, Cliff Notes version of the narrative. Valjean’s arc, for instance, is completed within the film’s first twenty minutes, and any of his decisions following that arc are predictable. Jackman is fine here, but Valjean becomes so static that he can do little to make him interesting. For a protagonist, he’s remarkably two dimensional. Javert’s arc is frankly baffling, playing one note, albeit well, for much of the enterprise and then making a completely unmotivated decision in his final minutes of screen time. Indeed, nearly every performance in Les Miserables is serviceable, yet can’t help but play towards theatricality, with song after song emoting the feelings of the characters. Because of the heart on sleeve nature of the songs, little subtlety is present in Les Miserables, and thus, almost no room to breathe. The singular exception to this entire film are the precious minutes of screen time involving Anne Hathaway’s Fantine. It is in her delicate, wrenching performance that the film succeeds wildly where the rest desperately struggles. In a single, unbroken, three minute take, Hathaway delivers an emotional tour de force with “I Dreamed a Dream,” conveying an entire life history to an otherwise one note character, with a rich sense of longing, desperation and heartbreak. No other performance comes within miles of Hathaway in this film, who takes full advantage of the on set singing, literally gasping for breath in the realization of her fate.

More troublesome is Tom Hooper’s distracting visual style, opting for intense, fish eye closeups of characters, overcooked asymmetrical compositions, and needless canted angles. Much of this feels entirely unmotivated, and those shots that do have intention, suggesting intimacy soft as a whisper, succeed sporadically. Hooper definitely had the opportunity to juxtapose the toils of his characters with the struggles of society at large in the photography. Lamentably, there remains a distinct separation of foreground and background, when instead the two should be married. When the film finally opts for large canvases, such as the breathtaking opening shot of convicts pulling in a massive vessel (evoking Ben-Hur) then the truly grandiose momentum of Les Miserables is felt. Alas, those truly engaging moments are few and far between. When the film is dominated wall to wall by music and singing, the pacing never coheres, especially in the film’s laborious third act.

Interestingly enough, despite my less than enthused reaction to this iteration of Les Miserables, I am nevertheless intrigued enough to explore Victor Hugo’s novel. With a condensed narrative, little subtlety, and a lack of meaningful, fully explored character arcs, there is much promise to be found in Tom Hooper’s film, yet those promises are all too rarely fulfilled. I finally heard the people sing, but I scarcely felt it.


~ by romancinema on December 27, 2012.

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