When you adapt a stage musical for the big screen, there are really only two ways that you can differentiate it from its source material – go big or go in close. In other words, expand the world beyond the restrictions of a stage, or zoom in on the actors and their facial expressions in a way that not even theatre patrons on the front row would experience.
And although there are certainly moments of the former in Les Miserables, director Tom (The King’s Speech) Hooper is all about the latter. At times it feels like 80% of the film has been shot in close-up. This makes it easy to appreciate how the all-star cast are putting their heart and soul into the production – unusually, the singing was recorded live on-set – and it’s powerful stuff. However, this approach does rob the film of kinetic energy. If your idea of a musical involves chunks of acting punctuated by lively choreographed show tunes (think The Sound of Music, Grease, Oliver! or Chicago), where dance visually enlivens the soundtrack, you’ll probably find Les Miserables dull in parts and definitely too long. And if you don’t enjoy musicals at all, beware! This eight-times Oscar nominee is essentially 158 minutes of unbroken singing.
Fans have been waiting a long time for a movie adaptation of the hit West End / Broadway production. Based on the novel by Victor Hugo, Les Miserables centres on Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman), an ex-convict who has just completed 19 years of hard labour for stealing a loaf of bread. Yes, it sucks to be poor and desperate in 19th Century France. Surprised by an act of kindness, the semi-feral Valjean vows to become a better man. He rightly realises that his stringent parole conditions will forever keep him oppressed, so he tears up his papers and assumes a new life. Eight years later, he’s a wealthy, respected man and he promises to care for Cosette, the daughter of destitute Fantine (Anne Hathaway). Things are complicated though by Valjean’s relentless pursuit by police captain Javert (Russell Crowe). And then there’s the growing unrest over poverty and social injustice in Paris.
Now bear in mind: if you like realistic plots, you’ll likely find Les Miserables wanting. Like many classic tales, it’s way too convenient and contrived. It’s one of those stories where characters bump into each other, eight years and cities apart, and people can fall passionately in love at a glance. Plus, with events set over the course of nearly two decades, the film has a major time jump around its midpoint. After this, the cast expands drastically and once pivotal figures are shouldered out of the spotlight and stripped of screen time – which some viewers, myself included, may find frustrating.
The first half of Les Miserables is largely unaffected by this issue, and, to be fair, it is closely following its source material. Also, let’s be honest, when it comes to musicals, audiences don’t mind narratives that have been given the shorthand treatment. They’re in the cinema – or theatre – for the emotional response generated by the soaring vocals and score. Les Miserables truly delivers in this regard.
The movie is grimmer in its first half, but it’s also more engaging, providing Jackman and Hathaway with their strongest moments. A particular highlight is the trio of musical numbers, At the End of the Day, Lovely Ladies and the spectacular I Dreamed a Dream (arguably Les Miserables’ signature song) that depict Fantine’s plunging fortune – and how she’s devoured (literally) piece by piece by a cruel world. Hathaway and Jackman, who demonstrates a dramatic physical transformation, are deserving of their recent Golden Globe wins.
As for the rest of the cast, the majority of the actors impress with their emotive singing ability. Eddie Redmayne is an especial surprise as Marius, an idealistic student campaigning for social change. Thanks to Mamma Mia! we already know that Amanda Seyfried can sing, and as the adult Cosette she has a stunning, crystal clear voice. However, her character is nothing more than a symbol of goodness and innocence, so she has little to do except look wide-eyed, sweet and pretty.
Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter, meanwhile, provide some much needed comic relief as a couple of tavern proprietors, thieves and con-artists. They’re a dishevelled, bawdy delight, the antithesis of so many morally rigid do-gooders in the film. Their big number, Master of the House, is the closest you get in the film to an old school song-and-dance routine where characters are actually having fun. Plus, there’s a lot of complexity in the sleight-of-hand choreography to appreciate.
Crowe is the weakest of the performers, for the record. However, it’s hard to gauge how much of his visible discomfort is scripted – Javert is inflexible in his appearance and morals – or a natural reaction to appearing in a movie musical for the first time. Either way, Crowe’s Javert is stiff, spending most of the film with his fists clenched at his sides.
Javert’s solos actually highlight a problem with the movie. Repeatedly, Les Miserables narrows its focus all the way down to lone characters who stand singing at the camera. And that grows quickly tiresome. Do we really need a fourth song centred on Valjean’s internal struggle to do the right thing? After a while you wish the characters would just get on with things. Although theatre aficionados would no doubt complain about the scrapping or shortening of favourite tracks, their removal would likely have tightened up the film – and stopped wandering minds in the audience.
Then again, perhaps I began to feel this way because I wasn’t as emotionally invested in Les Miserables’ second half. For the record, at the screening I attended, people began applauding as the credits rolled.
Anyway, it’s difficult to give Les Miserables a universal recommendation. If you adore musicals, by all means, rush out and experience its splendour on the big screen. If you’re a more casual, curious filmgoer, you’ll probably be pleased to know that the film isn’t relentlessly depressing. Thanks to the ever appealing Jackman, it’s a stirring study of a man’s quest for redemption. Sadly though, for all its strengths (technical and performance especially), Les Miserables isn’t the best film of the year. It’s given into its theatrical roots at the expense of cinematic tautness. And movie audiences don’t have the benefit of an intermission.