Just in time for the holiday season comes a little musical called Les Miserables, which is pretty much exactly what it says on the tin—a story about a bunch of miserable people in France. More specifically, it is a story about a an ex-convict and parole-evader determined to make an hoenst man of himself, and a police inspector determined to bring him to “justice.” Along the way our convict, Jean ValJean, has to deal with a love triangle involving his own adopted daughter and a young, hotheaded revolutionary.
Les Miserables is nothing if not ambitious. To take a stage musical and adapt it to the screen is a daunting challenge, particularly in the case of Les Mis, which has the added challenge of trying to blend musical numbers with a gritty, realistic historical setting. Tom Hooper, the director of the King’s Speech, pulls out all the stops. The result is a film that mostly works. Is it as good as the stage musical? Probably not—though it has moments of emotional intensity that might be difficult or even impossible to capture in the same way on stage.
The film boasts gorgeous set and costume design. The visual look of Les Mis is spot on—both epic and intimate, with sprawling vistas intercut with claustrophobic, cluttered environments. In this respect, the film Les Mis has a distinct advantage over the stage, since with the use of comptuer effects and the advantage of being able to move from location to location, Les Mis is able to set each musical number in the perfect environment. As Russel Crowe’s Inspector Javert sings “Stars,” he walks on an arrow parapet over a vast abyss, in a scene that is both visually arresting and symbolic. Jean ValJean (played by Hugh Jackman) hurls his letter of parole over a cliff, and we are able to watch as the wind sweeps it away. An epic battle at the barricade is one of the film’s highlights, as is the confrontation between protagonist Valjean and his nemesis Javert inside a hospital. When it comes to sheer spectacle, Les Miserables is near-perfect, its only real detriment being the cinematography, which is at times either overdone or underdone. It’s hard to count the number of “helicopter shots” where the camera swoops in circles around a singing actor, or the number of dizzying shots where the camera tilts at odd angles as it swoops through the narrow streets of Paris.
In general, the camerawork is too fast, too furious during the big numbers (the cuts during “Do the People Sing” began to make my head hurt), and too subdued during the solos. Though there is something to be said for a tight close-up shot of a singing character, when the camera refuses to cut after three minutes of song (or even to really shift perspective), it begins to get uncomfortable. A notable exception to this rule is Hugh Jackman’s “Who Am I,” one of the movie’s high points, where we shift from location to location and angle to angle throughout the song.
The editing in the film is as fast-paced as it gets, jumping from scene to scene with frenetic intensity. Somehow, Hooper manages to distill a long musical (complete with intermission) into a two and a half hour film, and even tosses in a few directorial flairs and battle scenes for good measure. The pacing works right up until the climactic battle—after, Les Mis suffers from Return of the King syndrome, with too many endings that stretch on a few minutes too far. It may sound sacrilegious to suggest cutting songs out of Les Miserables, but this is what Tom Hooper and the screenwriters should have done—a brief post-climactic subplot involving Jean ValJean’s decision to leave the city adds needless drama and doesn’t really make any sense.
In general, the acting in the film is strong. Of special mention are Sacha Baron Cohen’s brilliant turn as the film’s one attempt at livening tings up with a bit of comedy (even if it is the blackest sort of comedy), and Daniel Huttlestone in his brief turn as the street boy Gavroche. Eddie Redmayne and Samantha Barks are among the best singers, while Crowe and Jackman struggle with some of the notes, though Crowe is admittedly better than expected, while Jackman (with his history in musical theater) may be, regrettably, a tad worse.
One of Les Miserables’ most questionable decisions was to let the singing and the music take a secondary role to the acting. Though the renditions of the solos are heartfelt, it’s impossible to sing quite as beautifully when you’re crying, and since this is a movie named Les Miserables, everyone cries all the time. Whether this is a strength or weakness in the film is a matter of opinion. On the one hand, it lends each scene a lot of emotional vitality and is arguably more realistic. On the other hand, Les Miserables was never fully realistic in the first place. This is the realm of musical theater, where people can fall irrevocably in love at first glance, and Hugh Jackman can sing loudly next to a sleeping Eddie Redmayne and not wake him up, and where everyone, well, sings. To argue that this type of broken, imperfect singing is more realistic is a bit silly in this reviewer’s opinion. If you’re going to argue that a given character wouldn’t be able to sing well because she is dying or distraught, you could just as soon make the argument that a dying or distraught character wouldn’t be singing at all.
In short, Les Mis is an enjoyable spectacle. The team behind this film faced the daunting challenges involved with bringing a movie like this to the screen, and they faced them well. Les Miserables isn’t quite as musically astounding as the original play, but it’s a good, heartfelt story all the same. It’s sappy, and can be overwhelming, but when it works, which is often, it works very well.