Les Misérables

Les Misérables is the notoriously bleak tale of a gritty, revolutionary France, told on an epic scale. A sweeping portrayal of oppression and redemption, Tom Hooper’s film is a painfully raw, intimate and brave transposition to screen.

The film kicks off with a view of the weatherworn convicts roaring ‘Look Down’ as they battle against the elements in spectacular panorama. Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) is a convict serving his time for a petty crime under the ruthless gaze of Javert (Russell Crowe). Eight years later, Valjean is a gentleman in 1820s France, taking in the impoverished Cosette to honour his promise to the ill-fated mother Fantine (a radiant Anne Hathaway). Jump forward to 1832, and revolution is in the air. The proletariat take on the aristocracy, love blossoms between a now grown-up Cosette (Amanda Seyfried) and activist Marius (Eddie Redmayne); and Valjean’s past catches up with him, in the form of the vengeful Javert.

The story is an epic one, with multiple characters on a huge historical scale wailing some of the most famous songs in musical history from the gutter of nineteenth-century France. This is already a landmark in the film-musical, Hooper’s decision to film all the singing live a shrewd and triumphant choice. He strips down the songs, with the camera invasively closing in on the actor’s faces with little or no cuts. For a musical that takes on so much misery and dejection in such an impoverished, bleak context, this level of realism is perfect: it enriches rather than jars with the music.

Yes, he stomps and bellows, but he does it all pretty well.

Hugh Jackman’s performance is faultless in acting terms: his sunken, hollow face and stooped, broken physicality perfectly encapsulate the hardships of the era. His singing, however, is more like bleating and is simply too weak to carry the operatic songs of Valjean. However, the rest of the casting is impeccable. Sacha Baron-Cohen and Helena Bonham-Carter make a hilarious team as the Dickensian fraudsters, and Kings chorister Eddie Redmayne proves himself to be a real talent. Newcomers Aaron Tveit, as the tragic revolutionary Enjolras, and Samantha Barks, as the hopelessly in love Eponine, are also impressive. Even Russell Crowe pulls out a wonderfully theatrical performance. Yes, he stomps and bellows, but he does it all pretty well.

However, it is a luminous Anne Hathaway who steals the show in a tremendous twenty-minute performance. Fantine’s rapid spiral into poverty and prostitution is portrayed with conviction and compassion for the utter awfulness of Fantine’s fate. Her performance of ‘I Dreamed a Dream’ is an astounding piece of cinema.

The film perhaps stays too much in a studio setting, its stage roots too apparent to allow the movie to just be a movie. It takes a good twenty minutes to get going,  but builds a momentum that, once attained, is never lost. LES MISÉRABLES is a surprising achievement in cinema: a stripped-down, poignant adaptation that stays true to the raw emotion of the original story.

9 thoughts on “Les Misérables”

  1. As always, good review by Lillie BUT I could not disagree more on the film. It’s worth noting I’m not a huge musicals person and Hooper’s Les Mis hasn’t chnaged that. However, it’s fundamentally stupid for me to criticise a musical for being, y’know…musical. Most of my problems would still stand if it was a straight narrative feature.

    First off, the positives. Jackman is really very good, was very impressed with him. Russell Crowe’s singing was a bit flat, but as a whole performance I think he was the best after Jackman in all honesty. I loved their narrative to-and-fro, even if the plot as presented stretches credulity at stages. Some really superb moments besides (Sacha Baron Cohen back on form, great comic timing; excellent, if short, Hathaway performance), and some good songs…BUT…

    There were a couple of excellent uncut takes such as Hathaway’s ‘I Dreamed A Dream’ but the rest of it was edited like an awful action film. What’s more it had the camera angles of a TV pilot with unnecessary Dutch angles all over the place around the start of the 3rd act (for little to no tonal reason from what I could see). The incessant wide-angle close ups irritated me enourmously, and felt like a bad stretch for a ‘cinematic’ quality. The CGI is that of a second-rate superhero flick – this sounds like a shallow concern but why have the grand swooping shots if nothing has any feeling of weight? The opening scene should have been *incredible* but felt like a pop-up book to me, as well as the vocals being lost in the terrible sound mixing for that scene.

    On a more overarching point – why make a film if all you’re going to do is put on a West End production where you stick a camera right in their faces? And dear God was it LONG, could easily have trimmed half an hour.

    The film isn’t without merit, of course, but I think Tom Hooper badly let this get away from him.

    1. Agreed on the mix. For a through-sung musical the singing was too often lost in the mush—especially a problem with singers who aren’t professionals. Some people are complaining about the singing and I’m reminded a bit of the complaints that voice actors make when “face” actors provide the cast for animations but big names sell moves so what can you do?

      Once can’t but imagine that we are seeing the best of possibly quite a large number of takes on screen but there is an affecting straightforwardness to some of the performances. I will be very surprised if Hathaway doesn’t have a heap of awards by this time next year. People used to mock me for liking THE PRINCESS DIARIES and predicting that Hathaway would become a huge star.

  2. I’m going to disagree with Jim here, I reckon Lillie’s spot on. It’s an ambitious and emotionally moving crowd-pleaser. It might not be technically perfect – the choice of shots and the editing are uneven at times – but I had no problems with either the CGI or the close-ups. And the decision to focus on faces during the big numbers is a brave and thought-provoking one. It deliberately goes against expectations of what a musical should do, because it is in tune with its source material. Singin’ In The Rain this isn’t. I admired it for that.

    I liked Jackman and Hathaway very much, and Crowe got by alright. I got tired of HBC and SBC’s double act quite quickly, though not due to their performances. Yes, it did sag occasionally and was a shade overlong, but I certainly wasn’t bored at any point. Basically, good stuff.

  3. Did @JimGR go in with his scalpels nicely sharpened, or was @gavinmidgley prepared to be more indulgent, given the film’s origins and what kind of beast that would be ?

    I don’t know, and will not find out, because I probably want to spend the ticket-price on something else. However, even when an original musical had acts, I simply do not subscribe to the way of analysing films that sees such a thing as ‘the third act’ – I just don’t.

    1. No, I went in open-minded and quite voluntarily. Reviving the in-camera singing technique intrigued me, hence why I went at all. I think that aspect worked, I found it resulted in better and more naturalistic performances (such as Jackman/Crowe/Hathaway, even if ‘naturalistic’ is an absurd concept in a picture of this type) even if the length of it all did stretch my patience. As I say, though, my criticisms are really independent of the ‘musical’ nature. Unlike Gav, I didn’t find the close-ups bold, I found them forced. His angles are all over the place late on and it was borderline incompetently edited at points for me (into what felt to me like a 3-act structure ;-P).

  4. Now, I have read the review, and I find myself asking : How much is this film selling itself to the converted (who paid to see it (once or more) in the theatre) and want ‘a fix’, and how much is it to appeal to those who never did or could, for whom this is a good second best ?
    Novels may be the source of many a Life of Pi nowadays, especially when film-makers know that they’re likely to be onto a sure thing with their adaptation, but what about Quartet, about whose reasons for being based on a play that relatively few will have seen I have blogged… ?

  5. Well, the film of the stage musical of the concept album (apparently) of the book probably wasn’t ever going to set the world on fire but this clunker really misses the mark.

    I was interested to see how this film-of-a-play-with-singing compared to the live simul-casts of actual opera from the Met and such like that pop up at various cinemas from time to time.

    My first though: it’s too bloody long! Films tend to be these days and this thing is, of course, about as long as the stage show—but the show has, I believe, an interval. I think the longest act in the mainstream opera repertoire is Act I of Götterdämmerung which comes in, depending on the whims of the conductor, at about two hours then you can go have a drink. The running time of LES MIS is well over two and a half hours and that’s too long. And not long enough to adapt a five volume novel that covers the best part of two decades in the lives of dozens of characters. All these “umpteen years later” inter-titles merely emphasised to me how disjointed the story is. That’s not the fault of the film. It is the fault of the plodding libretto. According to wikipedia it’s not exactly a translation from the French (although some of the more mangled word order makes me wonder) and it even had James Fenton do some script doctoring on it. And yet it fails to grip.

    The set piece tear-jerkers do work, even on a grump such as myself, but as so heavily telegraphed (not least by the maudlin score) that they lack the impact that they really should have. They also seem strangely perfunctory, certainly compared to the very lengthy expirations that characters in proper operas very often gargle their way through.

    In those simul-casts the wise director puts the camera in the best seat in the house and pretty much leaves it at that. The occasional moderate close-up of a principal role doing the big numbers is fine. LES MIS has CGI only slightly better than that in a top-rated TV show and is full of these strange close-ups. They have very, very shallow depth of field but everything that’s in focus is as sharp as 2K can make it. I wonder how that was done. And the composition often puts the actor off-centre with this huge field of heavy bokeh filling the rest of the wide frame. Close but not tight. That puts a lot of pressure on the actors, who are really singing.

    In opera, singers act—usually quite badly. In LES MIS the actors sing—passably well, although as they aren’t actually singers sometimes their diction isn’t up to the job and it’s hard to tell what the lyric is. And often hard to care, not that it seems to matter terribly much. I started to nod off during some of the more syrupy stuff between the posh boy and the girl with the hair, whatever they’re called.

    I think the film auto-summarises itself in the scene after the battle at the barricades where Javert takes off his medal and pins on the dead ragamuffin. That seemed wildly inappropriate tot he character of Javert and it seems that it’s not in the stage show. And that’s LES MIS in a nutshell: unnecessary and nonsensical. Of course, most operas make even less sense but somehow they get away with it through other overriding virtues. LES MIS doesn’t manage that.

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