Les Miserables (2012)Reviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 12/27/12 00:10:34
After years and years of waiting, false starts and the like, the musical version of the classic Victor Hugo novel "Les Miserables" has finally made the transition from the stage to the big screen in a lavish adaptation clocking in at nearly three hours and featuring plenty of A-list talent in the major roles under the direction of a man whose previous effort took home the Oscars for Best Picture and Best Director. My guess is that the vast majority of the fans of the show--such people do exist--will come away from it entirely satisfied with the results and that, in a strange way, is a big part of what is wrong with the entire enterprise. Unless I am very much mistaken, one should come away from this material feeling excited, enthralled and emotionally stirred by the proceedings and in fact, there is just enough of that sense in the early going to suggest that it might actually work equally well for devotees as well as those who tend to consider musicals to be endurance contests more than anything else. That spell is soon broken however and it eventually becomes a leaden bore that practically suffocates under its own sense of self-importance and is further handicapped by some extremely questionable hirings on both sides of the camera.To briefly sum up the sprawling narrative cooked up by Hugo--and if you don't already know at least the gist of it and beyond your junior high school years, please take a moment to hang your head in shame--"Les Miserables" opens in Paris circa 1815 as Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) is being paroled from prison after having spent 19 years in prison--five of them for stealing bread to feed his sister''s starving family and the rest for repeated escape attempts--and learns from dedicated policeman Javert (Russell Crowe) that he will always be considered an ex-convict in the eyes of society and that even the slightest violation of his parole will land him back behind bars for good. At his lowest point, however, Valjean's fortunes change due to an unexpected act of kindness and when the story picks up eight years later, he is, after having broken parole and assuming a new identity, is now a prosperous factory owner and the mayor of the town of Montreuil-sur-Mer. One night, while walking the streets, he sees an ailing prostitute being arrested for fighting back against an abusive customer and recognizes her as Fantine (Anne Hathaway), a former employee of his factory who was fired unfairly by the plant manager. Feeling guilty about his unwitting part in her downfall, he orders the arresting officer--who turns out to be Javert, naturally--to release her so that she can get proper medical attention. It is too late but before Fantine dies, Valjean learns that she has a young daughter named Cosette and promises to retrieve her from the Thenardiers (Sasha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter), the sleazy innkeepers who have been (badly) caring for her while spoiling their own daughter Eponine, and promises to raise her as his own, managing to slip out of town just ahead of Javert, who has belatedly realized why the mayor seemed so familiar and who vows to once again bring him to justice.
Ten years later, Valjean is living in Paris with the now-grown Cosette (Amanda Seyfried), who is still in the dark regarding the truth about her mother and adopted father, while the streets are rife with upheaval. Although he knows that he cannot protect her from the outside world forever, Valjean is determined to keep Cosette sheltered for as long as he can, a plan that becomes more difficult to accomplish when budding young student revolutionary Marius (Eddie Redmayne) bumps into her in the street and becomes instantly besotted with her. To help find Cosette again, Marius enlists the aid of Eponine (Samantha Barks), who agrees to help him despite being in love with Marius herself. Meanwhile, Eponine's parents attempt to rob Valjean, only to be thwarted by--you guessed it--Javert, who once again lets his ultimate quarry slip away from him. Before long, Javert infiltrates the revolutionaries with the determination of stopping them before it is too late while Valjean intercepts a letter from Marius to Cosette from Eponine with the determination of stopping them before it is too late. Finally, the revolt begins and amidst all of the carnage, there are ironic revelations, romantic declarations, operatic deaths, tearful reconciliations and, needless to say, singing a-plenty.
And when I say "singing a-plenty," I am not speaking lightly because "Les Miserables" is a sung-through musical in which virtually every word uttered in the film is sung rather spoken as in an opera--something closer to the likes of "Evita" or "Pink Floyd The Wall" than to a conventional musical that throws conventional dialogue into the mix in between the tunes. For lovers of the original stage version, the decision to carry the concept over instead of trying to wrestle it into a more conventional presentation may come as a relief but it poses puts an extra burden on the filmmakers to figure out a way to present it in a manner that will somehow appeal to viewers outside of its immediate fan base. In other words, it needs a director possessing both a distinct cinematic style and a certain degree of fearlessness to help bring it to life as a genuine movie and not merely a visual recording of the stage production. A good, if perhaps too obvious, choice might have been Alan Parker, who is perhaps the leading musical filmmakers of our time thanks to the aforementioned "Evita" and "The Wall" as well as "Bugsy Malone" and "The Commitments" and someone like David Fincher might have done intriguing things with it as well.
However, the job went to Tom Hooper, who had just been anointed the next big thing in Hollywood after the success of "The King's Speech," and a blander, less exciting selection is hardly imaginable. This is a film that is begging for the DGA equivalent of a hotshot test pilot to make it soar but it instead gets a passenger jet pilot whose only concern is to get from point A to point B with the least amount of fuss possible. Oh sure, the screen is filled with lavishly appointed sets, costumes and huddled masses, not to mention an endless supply of ledges overlooking perilous heights for characters to sing from atop of at especially dramatic moments, and the camera frequently tilts as a way of underlining just how Serious it all is--even the comedy relief supplied by the hideous Thenardiers' has more portent to it than one might expect. What it doesn't have, however, is the passion and energy that it must have possessed on the stage in order to inspire such devotion over the years. Take the stirring Act I closer "One Day More," in which the various musical motifs of the main characters converge into a glorious anthem. This would seem to be an almost sure-fire way on energizing the audience but Hooper deals with the various ingredients in such a bland, Level One manner that it winds up paling in comparison to the spoof version of the song that appeared in the "South Park" movie. Put it this way--this is exactly the kind of epic musical that one might expect from the auteur of "The King Speech."
Hooper's big stylistic flourish here was the decision to film all the actors singing the songs live on the set instead of recording them before the actual shooting as a way of letting the emotions of the characters come through more clearly--the way that musicals used to be filmed before it became easier and cheaper to do them the other way. Many have hailed this choice as a powerful artistic statement but I am not so sure. After all, doing it live does not intrinsically make it better--Peter Bogdanovich did the same thing with the infamous "At Long Last Love" and that didn't exactly make that one a classic. Besides, it only works if the actors who are cast are talented enough to convey that emotion while simultaneously carrying a tune and that is where "Les Miserables" comes up short. To be fair, Hugh Jackman is a commanding presence as Valjean, especially in the early going, and Anne Hathaway's turn as Fantine is just as much of an award-worthy knockout as you have been hearing (even if the impact of her show-stopping rendition of the signature tune "I Dreamed a Dream" is lessened a bit when it dawns on you that Hooper's staging of the song is uncannily similar to the classic video for Sinead O'Connor's "Nothing Compares 2 U" and not just because of the similar hairdos).
However, Russell Crowe just doesn't click as Javert--his rock n roll voice jars uneasily with the show tunes he is delivering and he looks even more awkwardly cast here than he did in the recent kung-fu fizzle "The Man with the Golden Fists"--and Sasha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter camp up the joint as though they were refugees from a Tim Burton movie, a move that might have worked if it actually was a Tim Burton movie. And yet, while these miscasting can be sort of forgiven because of the star wattage they bring to the proceedings, the same cannot be said for Eddie Redmayne and Amanda Seyfried, whose combined fecklessness pretty much brings the movie to a dead halt whenever they take center stage--since they pretty much do just that for much of the second half, that turns out to be a bit of a problem. Further underscoring just how damaging their blandness is to the film as a whole, Samantha Barks blows both of them off the screen as Eponine--she is so strong and sure and makes such an impression that you'll wonder why Hooper didn't realize what he had and cast her as Cosette instead. (Hell, she would have even made for a better Marius, nowthat you mention it.) That said, "Les Miserables" will no doubt strongly appeal to its target audience--if you loved it on the stage, you will probably at least like what has been done with it here. As for everyone else, it is at least a far less painful moviegoing experience than such disastrous stage-to-screen musical transplants as "The Phantom of the Opera," "Rent" or the truly horrifying "Rock of Ages." Hell, I wouldn't be surprised to see it turn out to be a prime Academy Award candidate when the nominations are announced in a couple of weeks as an alternative to the darker and more troubling likes of "The Master," "Zero Dark Thirty" or "Django Unchained." When all is said and done, however, this is a film that has all the necessary ingredients but lacks that final spark of inspiration to pull them all together into something memorable. It may be a little better than some naysayers might have feared that it would be but it is nowhere near as good as it could have been. Let me put it this way--I have seen numerous screen adaptations of "Les Miserables" over the years and this is one of them.
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