Movie Review: LES MISERABLES (2012)
LES MISERABLES (2012), the grand new movie version of the acclaimed musical by Claude-Michel Schonberg and Alain Boublil, with English lyrics by Herbert Kretzmer, based on the novel by Victor Hugo, has everything going for it- outstanding cast, the award winning music and songs, and a realistic gritty look that truly captures 19th century France, yet ironically, for a musical, it’s desperately missing two key ingredients: rhythm and soul.
You can’t go wrong with the story. Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman), after spending nineteen years in prison for stealing a loaf of bread, is finally released, but not before he is warned by police inspector Javert (Russell Crowe) that if he violates the terms of his parole, he will be back in prison once more.
Unable to find work, and starving, Jean Valjean steals silver from a local priest, but the priest refuses to press charges, instead giving Jean Valjean a second chance at life. Jean Valjean moves away and starts a new life for himself, becoming mayor and running a successful business, but in the process violates his parole.
A young factory worker Fantine (Anne Hathaway) is fired from Jean Valjean’s factory, and in order to support her young daughter, she turns to a life on the streets. Later, when Jean Valjean finds her close to dying, and realizes she was fired from his factory, he promises to care for her daughter Cosette. But Javert is hot on Jean Valjean’s trail, and the convict and the little girl are forced to run.
Years later, during the French rebellion, an adult Cosette (Amanda Seyfried) falls in love with Marius (Eddie Redmayne), one of the student rebels, and when he and his friends are surrounded by French soldiers, it’s up to Jean Valjean to save him. Of course, lurking in the shadows is Javert, ready to finally capture his elusive prisoner.
Director Tom Hooper makes a point of making this story as gritty, dark, and depressing as possible. The streets of 19th century France and the people in them are filthy, the characters are convincingly thin and looked starved— both Hugh Jackman and Anne Hathaway lost considerable weight for their roles, and it shows— and the tight camera angles expose the suffering and pain on the characters’ faces.
LES MISERABLES looks convincing, and the characters appear the way you would expect them to appear. To this end, the movie is a major success. Where it goes wrong is there’s nothing to offset the darkness. One of the most powerful themes of LES MISERABLE is redemption. Jean Valjean gets a second chance in life. Fantine, in spite of her awful fate, lives long enough to know her daughter will be cared for. This movie version of LES MISERABLES is devoid of redemption. Jean Valjean looks just as miserable taking care of Cosette as he did in prison. Is the message here that in spite of second chances life is still ruthless, unfair, and painful? Perhaps. If not, the message seems to be second chances are fleeting at best.
Director Tom Hooper’s previous effort, THE KING’S SPEECH (2010), did a much better job with nuances and shades of gray when telling its story. Here, in LES MISERABLE, Hooper seems to be going all out to give us just one angle, the dark side. Light is conspicuously absent throughout most of the movie.
As a result, this movie seems to be missing its soul. There’s no heart. It’s cold, raw, and gloomy. No doubt there was a concerted effort to achieve this effect on purpose, and this by itself isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but there’s more wrong with this movie than just a lack of sunshine.
The pacing is off. There’s something relentless about the rapidity at which the songs and events in this movie attack its audience. It’s almost as if no one stepped back and had a look at the finished product. No one seemed to allow space for the audience to take a breath. Again, there is something cold about how this one delivers its story. It just hits you in the head and keeps hitting. In spite of its 157 minute run time, it plays like a sprint rather than a marathon.
The memorable songs from the musical are all here, but strangely, the singing isn’t up to par. Again, director Hooper seems to be going for realism. It’s hard for actors Hugh Jackman and Anne Hathaway to sound good when they’re covered in mud, starving, and half-dead.
Hugh Jackman does look amazing as Jean Valjean. He lost weight for the role, and it shows. When he’s a starving prisoner at the beginning of the movie, he looks the part. At certain times in the movie, his singing voice is as pleasing as you would expect it to be, but when he’s beaten, down and dirty, he sounds like he’s beaten, down, and dirty.
Anne Hathaway delivers the best performance in the film. She imbues Fantine with so much pain, and she looks so defeated by life, it’s horribly tragic and sad. And her singing succeeds in spite of her character’s situation.
But other than Jackman and Hathaway, the rest of the cast didn’t impress. Russell Crowe makes an imposing Javert until he starts singing. Amanda Seyfried, usually energetic and captivating, fails to wow as Cosette. Even her melodious singing voice seems strangely muted here. Eddie Redmayne fared slightly better as Marius, and he had one of the better singing voices in the movie.
Sacha Baron Cohen as Thenardier and Helena Bonham Carter as Madame Thenardier are sufficiently entertaining as the humorous couple who always seem to be turning up like a pair of bad pennies, and they provide decent comic relief in an otherwise depressing story.
LES MISERABLES is a phenomenal stage musical, but this movie version falls several notches below that level of excellence. It goes all in to make its statement that this is a dark and dreary story, and to that end it succeeds. With stronger musical performances, better pacing, and some heart and soul, it could have given us a little light along the way as well.