Review: Les Misérables
A giant beautiful flawed mess is the best description I can give for the Tom Hooper-directed big-screen adaptation of Les Misérables, itself a musical theater adaptation of the 1862 Victor Hugo novel. The story is a sweeping epic, and people unfamiliar with the material may find they are swept off their feet by the spectacle. But for longtime fans of the musical, the movie is a bumpy ride more full of downs than ups.
Hugh Jackman takes on the lead role of Jean Valjean, a convict released after 19 years imprisonment for the loaf of bread he stole to feed his sister's starving child. The film opens with a stunning shot of hundreds of prisoners, Valjean among them, struggling with lines to pull a ship into dock. This is one of the strongest images Hooper presents us and a dazzling introduction to Valjean's world. As he is released, Valjean is confronted by Russell Crowe's Javert, who presents him with his release papers, and we begin to see the largest of my problems with Hooper's take.
The characters throughout Les Misérables break out of song into speaking their lines, unlike in the stage musical. Verses that were written to carry enormous emotional weight through their melodic lines are instead spoken, as the actors attempt to express those emotions as if they were acting in a non-musical work. Some characters with only a line or two never actually sing. Jackman and Crowe are accomplished singers, but they don't have the appropriate range for these roles, and are forced to sing many lines an octave lower, virtually killing their impact.
Anne Hathaway's role as the tragic Fantine is perhaps the most dramatic performance, as we see her fall into disgrace and eventually death trying to care for her daughter Cosette. As with Jackman and Crowe, Hathaway's vocal performance takes a backseat to her acting, but that acting is so outstanding that she has become a strong contender for an Oscar.
Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter are perfectly cast as Monsieur and Madame Thénardier, the unscrupulous innkeepers who rob their guests blind. They are as important for comic relief as for their role in the plot. But the omission of Thénardier's song "Harvest Moon" was as unnecessary as the two forgettable songs that were newly added to the movie. It is possible to watch this and be completely oblivious that the street urchin Gavroche is actually the son of Thénardier and his wife.
The two standout vocal performances in Les Misérables are from Samantha Barks, reprising her Broadway role as Eponine, and Eddie Redmayne as Marius. Redmayne is a first-time singer but performs as well as a veteran of the stage. Howeer, these two can't save the production from its weaknesses, the other vocal performances and Hooper's direction.
Though the opening was breathtaking, the scenes set in the streets of Paris were underwhelming, looking fake and claustrophobic. In retrospect, I realize the heart of the problem is that Hooper was aiming for blockbuster cinematography but appears shackled by a desire to ground the film in its theatrical roots. The result is a mashup that at times works well as a film but inevitably forces you to remember it is a musical adaptation full of mediocre musical performances.