Friday, August 30, 2013

Les Misérables

Directed by Tom Hooper.
2012. Rated PG-13, 158 minutes.
Samantha Barks
Aaron Tveit
Daniel Huttlestone
Cavin Cornwall

Let’s start with a little personal history. Somehow, in all my years, I've never seen any sort of production of Les Misérables, not even part of one. I've also managed to remain completely ignorant of its plot. The only two things I know about it going in are that it’s a musical and it is legendary in the theater world. Without any other point of reference, I’m free to judge this on its own merits without comparing it to what was done on the stage.

On another personal note, my family refused to watch with me. These are the same people that get excited over the mention of Mamma Mia!, High School Musical, and the remakes of Fame, and Sparkle. This doesn't even include all the dance movies they watch over and over…and over. When I mention this, my oldest daughter sums up their collective anguish at the notion of taking in Les Mis when she twists her face into a pained look and says “Yeah, but this is…like opera or something.” With that, they scatter about the house leaving me alone with my virginal perspective on this old tale. Play.

A couple decades after The French Revolution, we meet Jean Valjean (Jackman). He is among a group of chained inmates charged with manually pulling a rather large ship into port. This difficult task is made even more so by the fact that they’re singing as they work. Hey, I am watching a musical…like opera or something. So yes, 99.9% of the dialogue is sang, but I digress. Valjean has been locked up for nineteen years for stealing a loaf of bread. Immediately following the boat scene, he’s finally granted parole.

However, he remains on probation and must report to his parole officer every so often. Pissed at the notion, he tears up his freedom papers, violates his probation by never reporting, and goes on the run. He becomes such a model citizen that when we skip ahead eight years, he is now the beloved mayor of a small town, under a different name of course. Sure enough, his old warden Javert (Crowe) is after him, forcing him to go on the run again. The difference this time is that he has also vowed to care for the daughter of Fantine (Hathaway), a young female employee at the local sweat shop who dies with no one to provide for her offspring. From this point forward, the movie is essentially a cat-and-mouse between the two men.

The first thing we notice is the look of the movie. The opening scene is flat out stunning. Even though the rest of the film doesn't quite measure up to first impressions, it’s a wonderful rendering of what France may have looked like at the time. No shots of snooty folk sipping wine at an outdoor restaurant with the Eiffel Tower in the background. This is a place that is rotting from the inside. Its core has gone bad. What we see is a perfect representation of the country’s political climate.

Next, we notice the startling first shot of Hugh Jackman. With a long scraggly beard and seven layers of dirt on seemingly every inch of him he quickly dispels our preconceived notions. The last time we see him this way, his first big solo, is an amazing moment. The rest of his performance doesn't disappoint, either. He’s just plain good. In fact, he’s better than good. I know he did a lot of theater before hitting it big on the silver screen. The experience shows. His emotions bubble to the surface, compelling us to watch. It’s not until after the movie that we realize we just saw Wolverine singing…like opera or something.  

Aside from our hero, we get a wonderful turn by Anne Hathaway, in just a few scenes. She gives us a gut-wrenching few minutes of screen time. There is also a rather fun performance by our comic relief, the duo of Sacha Baron-Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter. They provide the movie with a sorely needed element of playfulness even though the tandem combines to form the movie’s secondary villain. In what’s become an overlooked portrayal, perhaps due to the sheer bigness of the other names in the cast, Samantha Barks is also very good. I’m not completely sold on the crooning Russell Crowe, but he doesn't embarrass himself.

Story-wise, the movie holds together fairly well, but strains its own credibility in a few places. First, the warring between France’s citizens and its government is built up to be of supreme importance, as it should be, but then revealed to be merely a backdrop for the romance of Cosette (Seyfried) and Marius (Redmayne). It feels like rebellion was only a trivial pursuit for him that didn't go so well. Worse, I don’t believe one second of this romance to begin with. Sure, I can make allowances for love at first sight in movies, but this feels especially under baked. The whole thing is too sudden and they’re too immediately overwhelmed by the other. It’s reminiscent of what happens when Romeo meets Juliet, but without any of the same weight. It’s clearly a subplot, but pushed out front as if it is what we should be focusing on. I've no clue whether or not this works on stage. Here, I couldn't quite be convinced.

My lack of belief in the blossoming love of the couple in question leaves the core of the last few scenes a bit hollow for me. Fortunately, Jackman pulls me back in with his final number. It’s a fitting close to the story. This man who has been through so much finally appears too tired to continue. Since he is the reason we watch, it’s only right that he sends us off with one last heartfelt song. When that song ends we have what is, in my opinion, the best musical in several years, probably since the terrifically morbid Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. It’s certainly the best of a strangely crowded field. That said, if musicals aren't your thing, steer clear. After all, it’s…like opera or something.


  1. Nice review Wendell. It's a musical that really got to the core of me, and even yet, made me get the soundtrack!

  2. Wow! I can't say that I'll buy the soundtrack, but I did enjoy it very much and would gladly watch it again. Thanks.