Review: Les Misérables

Tom Hooper’s screen adaption of the long-running musical is undoubtedly impressive and possesses a stunning central performance from Anne Hathaway, but is let down by its long run time and some dubious vocal performances. review

lesmiserables

Director: Tom Hooper
Starring: Anne Hathaway, Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe
Length: 158 Minutes
Rating: ★★★☆☆

Les Misérables is a big film. Based on one of the longest running musicals of all time, with a cast of big names and a huge fanbase, it is one of the most eagerly awaited films of recent years. The story itself is grand – Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) is an unjustly imprisoned man, who once free, breaks parole and becomes mayor of a town in France. Following a series of tragic events, Valjean agrees to take care of Cosette (Amanda Seyfried), the illegitimate daughter of Fantine (Anne Hathaway), and must avoid being recaptured by Inspector Javert (Russell Crowe), whilst being entangled in the June Rebellion of 1832. As the cast have stressed in each and every interview, all the singing was performed live on set. Yet I confess I have never seen the show, despite somehow knowing each song from it.

Being a musical, it makes sense to start with the music. Singing live is a risk; the freedom to deliver songs in a more natural, emotional form works well in the bigger songs, yet the dialogue-esque music doesn’t gain much from it. Hugh Jackman is clearly comfortable with singing live, and carries each of his songs well, delivering a consistently strong performance throughout the film. Eddie Redmayne’s Marius was also a surprise; he has a beautiful voice, and the change from a giddy, in-love romantic to a broken and beaten soldier is fantastic. My personal favourite, however, has to be Sacha Baron Cohen’s gleefully unscrupulous Thénardier. Together with great support from Helena Boham Carter, he brings a grotesque theatricality to the character, yet it doesn’t jar with the more nuanced performances of the others. Instead, the crude comedy, and great voice that Cohen delivers, provides much needed entertainment, and is by far the most enjoyable performance.

Yet the performance that has got people talking, and rightly so, is Anne Hathaway. I have, admittedly, never been a huge fan of Hathaway as an actress, but here she is brilliant. As Fantine, forced into poverty and prostitution, she has one of the most famous musical numbers of all time – I Dreamed a Dream. It’s a song that is usually known as a big song for a big voice. But Hathaway turns it into something raw and deeply personal. With a single shot, a close up on her face, it’s painfully intimate – the audience watch her travel through grief, anger and then a bleak and desperately sad, but inevitable realisation of her fate. Nothing else in the film can compete with the power of that one scene.

Crowe, on the other hand, is the odd one out. As a casting decision, it was by far the biggest gamble – yet on paper, it makes sense. Crowe has a phenomenal screen presence, and such brute strength could have worked perfectly in contrast to Jackman’s spiritual strength. But, although not as atrocious as other reviews have suggested, he is the weakest singer of the cast, and looks psychically awkward and uncomfortable in many of the numbers. The nerves could have worked, if he was a stronger singer; a powerful voice from an unsure man would have created a powerful but inherently weak Javert, making him more of a danger, a more volatile threat. Sadly, Crowe just comes across as a rather abashed and insecure policeman – it’s quite sweet, really.

Visually, it looks great. The costume and makeup are used perfectly; from the outlandish costumes of the Thénardiers to the roguishly dressed revolutionaries, each character looks great. The set pieces are also fantastic – the barricaded streets of Paris have a grand, imposing physicality that is a treat for the eyes.

My main faults with the film lie within the story itself. For starters, the film runs on for far too long. The story is already lengthy, and the addition of a new song (the forgettable Suddenly) brings nothing to the story or characterisation – it could never have been added and the film would be richer for it. Both the opening and end of the film drag, the ending in particular; after the excitement of the revolution, the film seems to grind to a slow stop. The entire romance story of Marius and Cosette is rather dull; though Seyfried is fine in the role, the character has so little personality that the romance just seems irrelevant.

There is no denying that Les Misérables is an impressive film. The sheer size of it – from the cast to the set pieces – is stunning. The method of singing live on set also raises a more interesting question – what next for the movie musical? Singing live on set has worked well with Les Misérables because of the emotional depth of many of the songs, yet whether more films will feel the need to continue with this method will be interesting to see.

The film itself I am still unsure on. The musical means so much to so many people, but I’m not one of them – Les Misérables is just not for me. It’s a good film, yet for me personally, I know it’s one that I won’t return to.

8 comments

  1. 14 Jan ’13 at 12:53 pm

    Read the book.

    It’s a little bit like you don’t actually know the story to say the opening and ending are too slow. Without the background laid down at the beginning you wouldn’t understand where Valjean’s coming from or have the Valjean/Javert relationship set in stone from the off. Also, with the ending, that’s the way it is in the book and indeed the musical. The have the revolution, and then life has to go on. Valjean is finally able to die in peace and Marius and Cosette go on to get married and be “the future that they bring when tomorrow comes”.

    Also, have a look at Matt Lucas’ or Alun Armstrong’s Thenardier, far better than Sacha Baron Cohen’s, he wasn’t up to scratch.

    I agree with your comments about Anne Hathaway though.

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  2. I agree wholeheartedly with the first half of your review; your assessments of Jackman, Hathaway and the failings of Russell Crowe.

    Your idea that “my main faults with the film lie within the story itself” is weird to me. It’s not the story of the film, it’s the story of Les Miserables which they were hardly going to change! The narrative is complicated with many characters and is so cleverly constructed. The thing that holds it all together is the story of Valjean, making the beginning and the end essential and very poignant.

    For this reason I find it very strange that Nouse sent a reviewer who was not familiar with the stage show. An assessment of this film is ultimately an assessment of the adaptation of Les Miserables from stage to screen. I have not read the book, but am very familiar with the stage musical and felt the time fly by in the cinema. It felt a lot shorter than its actual running time and I did not want it to end! Yes they’ve added a superfluous song for the screen adaptation but a lot of the other songs were abbreviated so that the overall running time was a lot shorter than it is on stage.

    The main success of the film is in its adaptation from stage to screen, something which you’re unable to discuss. Like many, I’ve been singing and listening to these songs for years and somehow the familiarity numbs the horror of what the characters are singing about. The intimacy through camera effects and the half spoken or whispered singing, by a cast that was clearly chosen with acting ability rather than singing as the priority, made the songs fresh again and many of the solos completely heart-wrenching. This was particularly evident in Anne Hathaway’s I Dreamed A Dream, which needed to sound completely refreshed after being such a big hit for Susan Boyle. It sounded like a different song. And lines I’d forgotten such as ‘Don’t they know they’re making love to one already dead?’ at the end of Lovely Ladies were intensified by ability of the actress to sing it live, so that her voice cracked with the emotion expressed in her face.

    Michael Ball’s Marius is very different from that of Eddie Redmayne, but one is right choice for the belting out perfect notes from a large stage whilst the other is perfect for a simple and emotional performance on screen. Similarly no one could match Alfie Boe’s Valjean vocally, but he would not have been a patch on Hugh Jackman on screen.

    Hooper’s adaptation departed bravely from the style of the stage show but remained true to Les Miserables, presenting the same beautiful songs, themes and story lines in a way that was perfect for the silver screen.

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  3. Colm Wilkinson needs a mention: original Jean Valjean in the English Productions in NY and London.

    Casting him as the Priest was a brilliant move and including him in the finale as Valjean died was very poignant, almost like a kind of closure?

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  4. People need to remember that criticism is subjective. This condescending attitude towards the reviewer for her comments on pacing are pathetic. Les Mis fan clubs need to stop being so unbearably self-righteous when it comes to reading negative reviews of their film. Coming from a neutral observer, it was very, very ordinary. Poor singing and terribly directed.

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  5. I’m sorry actually fans of the musical are MORE likely to be critical of the film seeing as their were several differences between the film and the musical and you should see how the “Les Mis fan clubs” dislike it when people perform the songs badly (see their comments about Nick Jonas as Marius).

    Nonetheless, when I went to see it it had me (and all the people around me) in floods of tears at several points during it, and when I left the cinema I noticed several other people had quite clearly been crying. That just doesn’t happen for “very, very ordinary” films. This reviewer (like the one at YorkVision) is just trying to seem cool by disliking the film. Hating Les Mis is cool, liking it is not. There’s no way it would have received (and already have won 3 Golden Globes) as many award nominations if it was as bad as you say it is.

    For a decent review of the film, check out TheYorker’s.

    Reply

  6. *Nick Jonas as Marius in the 25th Anniversary performance.

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  7. People get really precious when it comes to Les Mis don’t they?

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  8. They’re trying to seem cool by disliking it? Are you actually joking? That is absolutely absurd. What has it come to when you describe something as ‘a decent review’ for agreeing with your opinion? What’s the point in film criticism then?

    And just because it’s won awards doesn’t mean it’s a good film and it doesn’t mean reviewers are forced to agree with them. Your argument is nonsensical. As I have already said, criticism is subjective. Just because someone dislikes something, it doesn’t mean it’s wrong. I think both this review and the YorkVision review argue their cases very well and that’s all that matters.

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