In the parking lot after coming out of the theater after seeing Les Miserables, I thought of a Seinfeld episode when Jerry catches George crying while watching Home Alone. “The old man got to me!” George responds defensively. Well, Les Miserables is not a great film–it’s often not very good at all–but it got to me. I’m not made of stone.
An adaptation of the stage musical which in turn was based on Victor Hugo’s novel, Les Miserables tells the story of Jean Valjean, a man imprisoned for stealing a loaf of bread. He is paroled, but is treated badly by everyone he meets because he is a convict. A priest is kind to him, and Valjean takes a new identity and ends up a prosperous businessman and even mayor of the town. But he is tracked by a resolute policeman, Javert.
Along the way, Valjean will take adopt a young girl, Cosette, the daughter of one of his employees. She will fall in love with a young man, Marius, who gets involved in the June 1832 rebellion in Paris, an anti-monarchist revolt. Valjean, torn between his love for Cosette but realizing he must let her go, saves Marius from death and unites the couple. He dies, happy that they are together. I admit, I teared up. The old man got to me.
But Les Miserables doesn’t always hit those heights, and in fact the only reason I give this film a thumbs up is that Hugo’s story shines through. A tale of redemption and doing the right thing, it makes one feel very good to see justice and humanity victorious.
There are problems, though. First of all, I’m not a big fan of the music, written by Alain Boublil and
Claude-Michel Schönberg. There’s one big song, sung by Fantine (Anne Hathaway), the doomed mother of Cosette, that’s pretty good, “I Dreamed a Dream.” But it seemed like that tune was repeated over and over again. Another character, Eponine (Samantha Barks), who loves Marius unrequitedly, has a big number, and it sounded suspiciously like the first song. Javert’s music (sung gamely by Russell Crowe) is a recitative that sounds amateurish.
A couple of the musical moments work, such as Valjean (a wonderful Hugh Jackman) sings “Bring Him Home,” hoping that Marius will survive the revolt, and Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter tackle “Master of the House” (in another Seinfeld episode, George can’t get the song out of his head). Cohen and Bonham Carter seem to have wandered in from a Tim Burton film, but they give a welcome comic jolt to all the depressing goings-on.
The direction, by Tom Hooper, is downright bad. Too often he relies on closeups, so much so that I felt like a dentist peering into the actor’s mouths. It works with Hathaway’s big number, which is performed in one take and in a tight closeup, but elsewhere it just made me want to move back. The photography works for the most part, in washed out colors will occasional splashes of red and blue (the colors of the French flag), but Hooper throws everything at the screen, hoping it will stick.
The performances are mostly of a high order, especially Jackman and Hathaway. I’m no expert on singing voices, so it didn’t bother me that Jackman, a baritone, sings a part written for a tenor. Hathaway, though her screen time is brief, is luminous. Less impressive is Amanda Seyfried as Cosette and Eddie Redmayne as Marius (though by mother says that Redmayne’s voice is the best). As for Crowe, he certainly looks the part, but maybe they should have gone with someone with a better singing voice.
While I was underwhelmed by the film, there are those who will love it–those who are predisposed to Broadway. If you don’t like Broadway musicals, Les Miserables may well be torture. I’m not a big fan of musicals, but I don’t have a knee-jerk hate for them, so I was okay with the film, despite its faults.
My grade for Les Miserables: B-.