“Les Misérables,” the new movie adaptation of the popular stage musical (which in turn was based off of a 1862 novel by Frenchman Victor Hugo) is well made, no doubt. I don’t think anyone can watch it and not, at the very least, appreciate it for the craftsmanship that went into it. Even if the movie itself is a little jam packed and uneven. Its director Tom Hooper (who won the Oscar for Best Director in 2010 for “The Kings Speech”) should also be commended, as “Les Misérables” is a sprawling, gargantuan, period piece. In other words, not an easy task for any director.
The best thing about the movie is that Hooper and screenwriter William Nicholson actually adapt it for a movie instead of taking the stage musical and putting a camera in front of it. The direction of period pieces in general tends to be flat and stagy (Hooper was a tad guilty for that in “The Kings Speech”) but “Les Misérables” is not. Instead the direction is energetic and the cinematography by Danny Cohen is very fluid, bringing out quite a bit of depth and dimension in story’s dreary environment. The editing by Chris Dickens and Melanie Oliver is fast, like a ‘Bourne” action picture, which is admittedly bizarre for something like this, but I’ll take that in a period piece over flat and stagey.
As far as plot is concerned, it takes place in 19th century France, post revolution. You’d think it would be a joyous time but there’s still poverty and more talk of revolution. The main character is Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) who, after stealing a loaf of bread to feed his family is forced to do slave labor. After he is freed he comes into contact with Fantine (Anne Hathaway), a poor peasant girl, who is forced to sell her hair and teeth for money to support her young daughter Cosette who is away. Indeed, it is a miserable time. Eve Stewart’s production design is spot on in depicting the harsh gritty reality. The mud, the disease, the gloominess. Not a pleasant affair, and Cohen’s cinematography further brings out that frigidness.
Anyhow, the movie moves on and at a rather fast pace, a good thing considering the film is two and half hours and we have much more ground to cover. After Fantine dies, Jean takes Cosette and looks after her. Time passes and eventually she’s all grown up (played by the big eyed blonde Amanda Seyfried) and they’re living together happily. But Jean can’t outrun his past, as he is still being pursued by Javert (Russell Crowe), a ruthless police inspector, for breaking parole. At this point the movie warms up a little (not much though) as there’s talk of a new revolution. In fact one of the young revolutionaries, Marius (Eddie Redmayne), takes a liking to Cosette.
All of the performances are great across the board. Jackman gives one of his most powerful and impassioned performances to date; Jean Valjean is the driving force of the whole musical and Jackman pulls it off. Same goes for Hathaway, she’s not in it for very much but when she is she makes a lasting impression. For proof, check out her rendition of “I Dreamed a Dream.” Even Crowe, who I wouldn’t have thought would be musical material, excels as the menacing but also misguided Javert. Overall I think the main reason why they all work so well is because they got to sing their songs live as opposed to recording before hand and lip-synching. It gives each one a realistic imperfection; the singing isn’t pristine and overly theatric, it sounds natural. Amidst all the singing they’re giving actual movie performances.
But then there are some issues. The main one for me being that just about every word spoken is in song form. Now, I know this is a musical, which means lots of singing, but does every word need to be sung? There are plenty of musicals that have breaks, to let us catch our breath; “Les Misérables” doesn’t. Sure, there are a number of memorable songs but it gets to the point where a majority of them blend together into an unmemorable musical glop.
Other problems have to do with the fact that story itself is a little bloated, with some characters and side plots not connecting. For example, Cosette and Marius’ romance (which becomes a major storyline) feels rushed and undeveloped. Though, I suppose that isn’t entirely the movie’s fault. I haven’t read the book, or seen the stage play but I’ve heard from people who have that it is bloated and uneven. With that said the movie still has to stand on its own.
In the end though, it doesn’t really matter. Fans of the musical will see it and will probably be impressed. For everyone else, it’s a massive slightly uneven period musical. Take it or leave it. But as a nonfan I can happily say that it is skillfully made and superbly acted.