in Review

Les Misérables

Les Misérables was my most mixed film-going experience of the year. Pretentious, melodramatic, and overlong, were all preconceived fears that quickly became truths in my viewing experience of this film. Concurently, the film tells such a grand story that’s presented in such a grand package. I greatly admire the ambition of scope, but I despise the film’s refusal to give the audience any breathing room in all of it’s 158 minute running time.

Based on the 1980’s musical adaptation of Victor Hugo’s 1862 novel, Les Misérables is an epic tale of guilt and redemption. The film begins with ex-con Jean Valjean’s (Hugh Jackman) parole for a petty crime. Jean struggles with life on the outside and eventually breaks his parole, leading to police officer Jalvert’s (Russell Crowe) undying pursuit of him. Years pass and Jean assumes a new identity as a successful businessman/mayor. Jean uses his status to aid the struggling Fantine (Anne Hathaway) and promises to support her illegitimate daughter Cosette (Isabella Allen and later Amanda Seyfried) no matter what happens. As the story continues, Javert continues his pursuit and Jean raises Cosette all along the backdrop of the French Revolution. Les Misérables is most definitely an epic story but often falters as an epic film.

I like musicals as much as the next guy, or at least guys that like musicals, but Les Misérables is a musical that doesn’t fit the mold of a movie. There’s something so awkward about characters that sing directly into a camera. There’s no dancing here and not much to look at it. Most numbers revolve around a character sitting or bent over lamenting in song. That’s not to say that some of these songs aren’t great, but there’s nothing to visually complement the performances. Anne Hathaway’s Fantine is the only character who’s vocal performances are truly memorable. “I Dreamed a Dream” as seen in the trailers is the film’s breakout moment. Hugh Jackman has a unique tenor delivery, but it becomes grating after ninetysomething minutes. Russell Crowe isn’t right for this film at all. He can sing but it’s the wrong kind of singing. While Anne Hathaway and Hugh Jackman sound like true stage singers, Russell Crowe sounds like he’s trying to do David Bowie.

I liked the majority of the songs, but one thing I couldn’t stand was something I call “Talk-Singing”. This is when two characters for no apparent reason sing all of their dialogue with no discernible melody. You have to give the audience some time to breathe in-between songs. Instead, Les Misérables is a relentless assault of never ending singing. After awhile I felt the movie getting repetitive and dull. Not only that, but so many of the songs convey the same themes. I get that Jean is tortured by guilt and that Javert has a mournful dedication to his duties. Do we really need more than one scene of Russell Crowe overlooking the Paris skyline and belting out his responsibilities as an officer?

It’s hard for me to bash Les Misérables when it’s clear that so much love and and hard work went into bringing this story to life. There’s some outstanding set pieces here and the production, costumes, and sets are all of the highest caliber. I think the problem is Les Misérables as a musical doesn’t translate well to film. I would have much rather seen Tom Hooper approach the story as a non-musical, period-piece drama. The film is by no means terrible, but far from what I come to expect during Oscar season. The fact that this will be an Oscar contender is completely undeserving.

P.S. Why does everyone in France speak with a Cockney accent?