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Les Misérables Review: Hands Down The Best Feel-Sh*tty Movie Of The Year

By Joanna Robinson | Film Reviews | December 24, 2012 | Comments ()


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Though it's far from perfect, director Tom Hooper's ambitious attempt to turn one of the most famous, oft-heard musicals of the 20th century into something fresh is an indisputably brilliant achievement. As a life-long theater nerd and a child of the '80s, I've heard the popular songs from this musical performed as audition and solo pieces more times than I could possibly count. And even if you don't share that dubious background, you've likely heard Susan Boyle's Internet-famous rendition of "I Dreamed a Dream" enough times that all meaning and life has been wrung from it. But then along comes Anne Hathaway, and -- this I promise you -- she brings the entire house down. More on that later, but the most important thing to take-away is that, despite some flaws, Hooper's adaptation is a resounding success.

The film, based on Victor Hugo's classic novel, follows Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman), a 19th century French convict, as he attempts to both build a new life and escape the relentless pursuit of Inspector Javert (Russell Crowe). After failing to help the profoundly tragic Fantine (Hathaway), he adopts and raises her daughter, Cosette (Amanda Seyfried) as his own. When Cosette falls in love with Marius (Eddie Redmayne), a young student and protestor, Jean Valjean is reluctantly drawn into the 1832 June Rebellion in Paris. And though Hugo's lengthy novel is epic in both scope and subject matter, it's the intimate, self-reflective moments of the characters that has made it an enduring classic. Musical numbers can be off-putting to those not comfortable with the genre, and Les Misérables has so little spoken dialogue that it's basically an operetta. But the very best musical numbers from the score by Alain Boublil, Claude-Michel Schönberg and Herbert Kretzmer ("Who Am I?" "I Dreamed a Dream" "Stars," "On My Own," "Bring Him Home," "Empty Chairs at Empty Tables," etc.) are all monologues: profoundly sad, soul-searching songs that these unlucky, unhappy miserables sing to themselves in attempt to process the chaotic world around them. And when these songs come along, Tom Hooper, a huge fan of almost distorted, wide-angle close ups, practically shoves his camera up the noses of his actors, letting the grief-stricken faces of Jackman, Hathaway, Redmayne, et al. fill the entire screen.

With all due respect to every stage actor who has tackled it, that sort of intimate, raw performance is something we've never quite seen from Les Misérables. The key to unlocking this project, it seems, was Hooper's insistence that the actors sing their parts live on set. So what you see, from the strongest performers in the cast, is something wholly unique. Unlike stage actors, these singers don't have to focus so hard on projecting loudly enough to hit the cheap seats that they lose some of the emotional nuance of the song. And unlike the slight disconnect you get with lip-synching a smooth, pre-recorded track that has plagued film musicals in the past, there is no gap here at all between what you see on screen and what you hear. Additionally, the actors were given a bit of interpretive freedom with their songs (the score was recorded later to match their choices), and, for example, the way both Jackman and Hathaway hit the word "shame" in their respective songs unlocked a connection between Valjean and Fantine that I hadn't noticed before.

But how is the singing? For the most part, excellent. That unflinching intimacy that I mentioned earlier works best for Hathaway and Jackman, who are both accomplished singers and screen actors. (Though even Jackman struggles a bit with the notoriously challenging "Bring Him Home." I'm baffled as to why they didn't change the key for him.) It also works fairly well for the stage actors Hooper brought in to play the street urchin Eponine and leader of the student rebellion, Enjolras. Both Samantha Barks and Aaron Tveit are completely at ease with their talent. The most welcome singer, perhaps, for die-hard musical fans is Colm Wilkinson (the original Jean Valjean) in a cameo as the Bishop of Digne who helps Jean Valjean in his most desperate hour. But, unfortunately, Hooper's grand experiment fails with Russell Crowe's stiff and awkward performance as Javert. Crowe is, in theory, perfectly cast as the unrelenting, bullish policeman who obstinately sees the world in black and white. He's made a career of playing pig-headed men. And though Crowe is not a terrible singer by any means (he's often somewhat flat), he looks so painfully uncomfortable and insecure when singing that his entire performance as Javert is undermined. Which is a pity, because one of the story's most poignant moments is when Javert's conviction gives way to confusion and despair. I strongly suspect Hooper knew Crowe was weak and, thus, eschewed the close-ups during Crowe's two big numbers in a favor of swirling and swooping shots of a CGI'd Paris. It distracts a little, but not enough. Finally, Redmayne and Seyfried are perfectly tremulous as the young lovers Cosette and Marius. In contrast to Crowe's bleat, any weaknesses in their voices works perfectly for their characters. Redmayne is particularly strong during the heart-cracking "Empty Chairs at Empty Tables," a song that became an anthem for AIDS victims in the '90s and will resound just as strongly for anyone suffering a loss today.

The film itself is gorgeous, though I'm not sure anything was served by including large CGI set pieces like the massive ship in the opening sequence. As I mentioned earlier, the scope of Les Misérables is large enough on its own; there's no need to make it seem any grander. Hooper preserved a bit of iconic imagery from the stage show (e.g., the look of the barricade during the Occupy Rue du Bout du Monde sequence and Enjolras clutching his red flag). He also makes good use of some hand-held camera work, lingering on the anonymous, dirt-smeared faces of prisoners, paupers and protesters. As is usually the case when a stage musical is adapted for the screen, the songwriters have added a new number (in the hopes of snagging a "Best Original Song" award). Unfortunately, the mawkishly sentimental "Suddenly" that Valjean sings to a young Cosette falls flat and sticks out both tonally and musically in such a tightly woven score full of recurring themes and motifs. On the whole, though, Hooper deftly avoids the saccharine tone that can drag down many a musical, and those among you who are made uncomfortable by dancing will be happy to know that, barring some surprisingly synchronized disease-ridden whores, there's very little by way of choreography in this film. Mercifully, Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen as the clownish Thénardiers save the film from being an absolutely depressing slog. Perfectly wicked and grasping, their "Master of the House" is a complete delight.

However, don't forget the title of the film. This is a harrowing story with tragic deaths at every turn. But there has been nothing as electric as Fantine's swan song on-screen this year. Hathaway bravely (yes, bravely!) puts everything out on the table. Her lack of vanity and self-conciousness as she weep-warbles her way through "I Dreamed a Dream" will strike you down. It's easy enough to accuse an actress of Oscar-baiting, but she undeniably delivers on everything the film trailer promised. If you let her, she'll tear your soul apart.




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Comments Are Welcome, Bigots and Trolls Are Not


  • Karo

    I've never seen any musical, never heard any of those songs, so I can't compare. I just loved the movie and thought it worked really well the way they put all the back stories into songs, making it so much easier to deal with than the book (which is great! But hard work.) I loved the over-the-top-ness of it all. I just sat there thinking "More! BIGGER!!!". It's hard to criticize something that is made to be over the top and unsubtle in the extreme (as I suppose musicals are). Loved, loved, loved it. The potential to make fun of it is enormous though, if you wanted to - the part where even Marius' grandpa broke into song made me laugh.

    But emmm... how the hell do you put THAT onto a stage? It needs a lot of people, and barricades. And whores. And... stuff.

  • Kathleen Allen

    ok, ok. i'll go. but alfie boe is going to be on a loop in my head. probably to drown out the wretched crowe. seriously, WHY? so many better options out there. i still can't forgive him for 'robin hood'. you're casting a 'before the legend' robin hood and you go with an old, fat, scowly, australian? with richard armitage out there? who's young, english, delectable, and already proven himself adept at leather pants acting!? unbelievable!

  • Wonderful movie. I really like it

  • Salieri2

    Just saw it. It's hard to shake the feeling that scores of out-of-work Javerts are building barricades at theaters all across the country.

  • James Ballard

    I did willingly see this with the Mrs. and was hoping for something interesting at best. I left the theater not hating it, but unsatisfied.

    Totally agree with Ren's assessment right down to the "I despise musicals". Her all-too-short performance was breath-taking. Anne rightfully deserves an Oscar nod.

    I was always thinking about how much I would've liked this better with less singing (like Grease), or no singing at all. Wolverine and Maximus were very distracting. They did a good job, however, maybe just singing their soliloqueys (sp?) and acting out the rest would've been better.

    Hmmmm...

    Master of the House was amusing with Borat and Carla, but I was totally distracted by the women behind me who giggled incessantly at every little stupid thing they did. It wasn't THAT funny.

    Oh, and what a piss ant revolution!

    Then I thought about the story - and it kinda sucked (or at least how quickly they moved from one time to the other) - not sure. Most of the relationships happened so fast that I never really felt any connection between them. We go from a slave to the mayor to firing factory worker Anne to becoming hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold Anne dying impressively to adopting girl from Borat to teenage love to a tiny revolution to everybody dies except the boy to sewer diving to platform diving into a swirling abyss to reunion and finally a Parisian purgatory on top of furniture. Whew!

    I'm guessing the Victor Hugo book is probably awesome, but I'll never know.

    This movie would have been better if it were Django Unchained.

  • slower lower

    Agreed, with the notable exception of Hathaway's performance. She grated on my nerves in every scene I prefer a Fantine who slides stoically in to the abyss to one who looks and sounds every second like she's in peril of choking on her own snot. I believe the placement of I Dreamed A Dream differed from the stage production which added to the overwrought feeling in that scene.

  • I despise musicals. Absolutely hate them and I was dragged along to this totally prepared to roll my eyes the whole way through. But Anne Hathaway singing her guts out tore into me so much so that 3 days later I still tear up thinking about it. I've tried listening to some of the musical theatre versions of I Dreamed A Dream, but they're so operatic I just can't stand them. Nothing matches the total rawness and emotion of that version. Excuse me, I think I have something in my eye. Again.

  • Dave Dorris

    I have to say, I love Anne Hathaway. I think she's beautiful. For her to appear as she does in this film takes considerable (figurative) balls. It doesn't seem like anything was added, like with Charlie Theron in Monster, but more like everything was stripped away. Balls.

  • kirbyjay

    Russell has been the lead singer in his own band since Hector was a pup, and he's also done musicals for the stage ( Rocky Horror Picture Show) so stop with the Russell can't sing stuff. Perhaps he sang the way he did because Javert is the antagonist in the film. So it was an acting choice.....yeah, that's it.....good job Rusty.
    There will be no criticism of Russell Crowe on my watch!

  • Strand

    I'll see it when I can, I hope Eddie Redmayne's creepy, puffy, bloodless lips aren't too off-putting as I've found in his previous movies.

  • I am so incredibly excited for this, and every review I read just makes me want it more.

    I'm sad to hear about Crowe, because he looks perfect for the part, but the bits we heard of him from trailers seemed to have no power or emotion to them. Ah,well.

    I can't wait for "Master of the House". Aaaah!

  • apsutter

    They should have hired Norm Lewis to be Javert. I love his version and he looks so good in the suit!

  • Quatermain

    I'd be interested in seeing this, but I don't know if I want to spend three and a half hours in the theater. I might just wait for it to hit Netflix so I can pause it if I need to use the can or make a sandwich.

    Plus when people talk in the theater it makes me want to stab them with a fork like Al Capone.

  • Uriah_Creep

    Wait wait wait... Anne Hathaway plays Amanda Seyfried's mother? That's unpossible!

  • Jezzer

    Cosette was in her 20s when she was born. That's why Fantine is so miserable, you see.

  • The most welcome singer, perhaps, for die-hard musical fans is Colm Wilkinson (the original Jean Valjean) in a cameo as the Bishop of Digne who helps Jean Valjean in his most desperate hour.

    *FANGIRL SCREAM*

  • KatSings

    You know I agree with all of this, since we talked about it already. Beautiful review, and completely accurate on every count. I can't wait to see this again.

  • Wembley

    So, it would have been more upbeat if they'd have gone with Taylor Swift? Cause that's what I'm hearing...

  • MyFridayJeans

    The first few times this flicked past my awareness I thought it was going to be directed by Tobe Hooper. I would have watched that.

  • blacksred

    I did too and I was like They are going to let the guy who did Texas Chain Saw Massacre do this??

  • Oh thank god someone I respect also likes this movie. I was beginning to feel so very very alone.

  • prairiegirl

    I'm going to see it Wednesday and CAN. NOT. WAIT. Thanks for the review and reinforcing my excitement to see it.

  • Brooke the Replicant

    Jesus, nothing at all makes me want to go see this. It sounds monumentally depressing.

  • Its title translates to "The Miserable" or "The Wretched Ones." Of course it's "monumentally depressing."

  • Brooke the Replicant

    No, I totally get that. But jesus, I have no desire to see a movie that makes me feel nothing but utter despair and depression, which is what this sounds like.

  • You definitely won't regret trying this one out, I promise. It's not a Million Dollar Baby, where you leave the theater feeling far more wretched than you did coming in. Like Slim said, it's ultimately about redemption and doesn't leave you at the bottom. You may cry, but you'll cry because of how beautiful the production is. If this is your first go, I suggest finding the 10th Anniversary Edition recording and giving it a listen.

  • Slim

    The whole story is, ultimately, about redemption. A really beautiful, important redemption. It doesn't leave you at the bottom.

  • Devin McMusters

    In fact, every word of this review reinforces my desire to miss this one.

  • Samantha Klein

    Thank you for this well-balanced review. I am steeling myself to the fact that Crowe will be something of a disappointment, although I still think he was perfect casting. Maybe they should have gotten him into voice lessons sooner? It sounds as though, being a fan of the musical, I will not be totally disappointed. Is it Christmas yet??

  • nosio

    This just makes the world not ending all the more sweet.

    And depressing. Depressingly sweet!

  • MissAmynae

    reserving judgement, but its going to be difficult to beat Ruthie Henshall as Fantine. Maybe its just Hathaway fatigue (please honey go away and enjoy your new hubby for a little while!) but yay Colm Wilkinson cameo and "Empty Chairs"!!

    And dammit about Crowe as Javert. His look is perfection, but they didn't need his starpower, should have brought in a stage actor who could do "Stars" justice.

  • My thoughts exactly re: Fantine. Tumblr is circulating "At the End of the Day" and Hathaway's part is pretty much sung in a whisper. I'm hoping I can reconcile creative interpretation to what's been ingrained in my head for so long with these songs.

  • MissAmynae

    its like with "Chicago" and Zellweger.

  • Exactly!

  • Zen

    In the "singing Fantine" contest, Ruthie wins with all hands down. I imagine that the character can be acted better, but I've yet to hear her sung better.

  • Sara_Tonin00

    Judy Kuhn might give her a run for her money though...she played original Cosette, but her voice on "I Dreamed a Dream" is just stellar.

  • MissAmynae

    her voice is stellar period! I find her a little too pitch-perfect, but one of the things i love about this show is how the songs' melodies intertwine and repeat- actresses can play different parts as they mature.

  • MissAmynae

    My lanta, I would have loved to see her in the full stage production. I think the concert format limited all of them to a certain point. I saw Lea Salonga in the 25th anniv. concert, and she was great, but it was difficult to hear Princess Jasmine sing as a doomed prostitute.

  • Kballs

    I just knew the 83rd version of this on the big screen would be a smashing success! Sad Europeans FTW!!!

  • Rob

    I'm eager to see it just for the live performances from the leads. So I'm glad to read that it factored positively into the production.

    But as Mike Birbiglia tweeted a couple weeks ago, "So glad they made Les Mis into a film. Something about the stage show doesn't quite work."

  • Sunsneezer

    Surprisingly synchronized disease-ridden whores are a pretty good deal overall!

  • Mrs. Julien

    Now I'm picturing them with nose plugs.

  • e jerry powell

    It's a sad-off, muthafuckahs!

  • meh

    FUCK YES.

  • SabrinaHatesDisqus

    I want to create a Venn diagram with your name overlapping your comment, but I can't figure out what would be in the middle.

  • You pretentious twat.

  • Jezzer

    You humorless shit.

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