Movie adaptations are a hard sell. Movie adaptations of musicals are even harder. In recent memory we have seen movie musicals in the form of films like Phantom of the Opera, Chicago and Mamma Mia!, all having mixed receptions. Directed by Tom Hooper (The King’s Speech), Les Misérables is the latest example of putting Hollywood’s face on a beloved Broadway show.
For the uninitiated, Les Misérables is the story of an intricate web of characters with the rivalry of ex-convict Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) and police inspector Javert (Russell Crowe) at the center of it. Javert hunts Valjean across the decades as Valjean creates new identities for himself in an attempt to simply live a better life. Alongside Valjean’s tale we are introduced to mother Fantine (Anne Hathaway) who is desperate to feed her daughter Cosette, so she turns to prostitution. Valjean promises the dying Fantine to raise Cosette, who grows into a young woman (Amanda Seyfried.) Cosette falls in love with Marius (Eddie Redmayne), whose friends are planning the French Revolution. Lives are lost, hearts are broken and morals are compromised, all under a banner of powerful ballads and songs. If it sounds complicated, don’t worry, “it only means that you are still sane.” (Yes, I managed to make a Watchmen reference in a Les Mis review.)
A friend of mine asked if I would review Les Misérables as a musical fan or as a movie-goer, to which I must respond “both.” I can’t unlearn my knowledge (however limited) of the stage production to evaluate the film; one informs the other. So if you are looking for an unbiased review, ask a UFC fan to watch Les Misérables and see what he thinks.
The most obvious flaw of the film is its choice of Russell Crowe as Javert. Crowe undoubtedly has the screen presence required to portray the menacing villain/hero of the story. The problem is that Javert is one of the more powerful singers of Les Mis and Crowe provides the vocal performance of an auto-tuned fax machine. Also **SPOILER ALERT** Javert’s unceremonious and somewhat disrespectful death still has me reeling with frustration. (I liken it to Chef’s demise on South Park) Amanda Seyfried’s high-pitched bravado was also a bit much, with Cosette’s shrieking ballads of love.
While I’m not usually this picky with aesthetics, there were also some curious choices in cinematography. Many of the solos had me begging the cameraman to zoom out of Anne Hathaway and Russel Crowe’s respective faces. It’s true that Les Mis doesn’t have much in the way of dance visuals, but maybe you could showcase some of the sets? I’m sure the art department would appreciate that 🙂 . Also little Gavroche’s singing to the camera in the “second act” had me thinking of really bad rap videos.
If you know me, you know I could spend much more time complaining, so I shall end the rants there. Having much experience on the stage, Hugh Jackman succeeds at portraying the humble hero of Jean Valjean. He holds back a bit vocally, which makes it more gratifying when he belts the dramatic finishes to Valjean’s songs. The much talked about Anne Hathaway as Fantine does indeed make a memorable though brief impression. The epic scale is translated well, with scenes like Valjean and his fellow inmates slaving away on a gigantic barge and a grandiose finale with reprise of “Do You Hear The People Sing?”
Les Misérables is a good movie but falls into the same problem that most stage adaptations do. Films have the privilege of being polished edited and perfected long after the performances are done. The gratification of stage productions is the risk involved with live performances, seeing the cast’s hard work come to life. Because of that Les Misérables reaches, but it falls.
Final Grade: ★★★ 3/5