Les Misérables – A Review

That seemed like a whole lot of drama over a loaf of bread.

When I was in 7th grade, I missed a lot of school (don’t worry – this is going somewhere). That year wasn’t a very happy one for me; our grade was divided in half and most of my good friends had a completely opposite schedule than I did, which means that our classes didn’t overlap nor did our lunches. When you are 12 and you don’t see your friends all day at school, this is a big.freaking.deal. I still had friends of course, because I’m kind of awesome, but I hated that all my old friends got to hang out all day without me. I was also kind of bored with my classes at that point. There wasn’t much that we were doing that was all that challenging. For the first time ever, I didn’t look forward to going to school. Boredom and being unhappy paired together manifested itself in me not feeling well a lot and me missing more days of school that year than in any other. I totally rebounded in 8th grade – I skipped a year in math and science and was reunited with all my pals – but 7th grade was not a ton of fun.

I point this out to say that I must have been absent the day that all the girls were rounded up and given copies of the Les Misérables soundtrack, because somewhere along the way almost every girl I knew became obsessed with this play and I had no godly idea what they were talking about. I knew that it was a Broadway show, but I didn’t understand what the big deal was or know much of anything about it other than the fact that I had to stare at this poster at far too many sleepovers.

 

It's not easy to sleep with Cosette staring down at you

It’s not easy to sleep with Cosette staring down at you

 

My best friend Sha was among those that was a big fan of Les Misérables and I have vivid memories of being at her house with the Broadway soundtrack playing in the background. Unfortunately the music doesn’t make a lot of sense without knowing the story and I never really knew what character was singing what, so even when she would try to explain it to me it would all just become a jumbled mess in my head. The only song that really stuck out to me was “Lovely Ladies” because I knew it was sung by a bunch of prostitutes and that seemed somewhat scandalous for Broadway, based on my limited exposure to more “kid friendly” plays like Annie. But for the most part I just kept my mouth shut and didn’t let on how little I really knew was going on, just nodding when people talked about Jean Valjean (though I thought that name was a little silly). My friends were probably completely unaware that I assumed the whole play was about prostitutes during the French Revolution (now THAT would have been a musical to see).

At this point, it probably goes without saying that I never saw the play, so while I knew many of my assumptions were not correct the older I got, they weren’t completely displaced. So I walked in to see Les Misérables last night not really sure what to expect or what I actually knew about the story. Unfortunately Anne Hathaway spoiled some of it for me during her interview on The Daily Show when she gave away some plot points, so I had a little more intel than expected, but I still wasn’t sure how this all was going to fit together. I wouldn’t have been the least bit surprised if Cosette wound up being a lady of the evening (I was really hung up on the prostitution thing). I was kind of prepared for anything.

Ultimately I liked, but didn’t love, the film adaptation of Les Misérables. I don’t think that I fully connected with the music or the story, but the performances were strong enough overall that it was a nice, but long, cinematic experience. Fans of the musical may be more invested in the film than I was; I just don’t know that Les Misérables is my thing.

As I now know, prostitution plays a much smaller role in the story than I had previously imagined. The plot is actually pretty convoluted. I struggled with deciding how to summarize everything that was going on without giving too much away. Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) is sent to prison for stealing a loaf of bread and when he is released twenty years later he must decide what direction to take his life: should he continue to hate the society that has cast him out because of his criminal record and live down to the expectations others now have of him or should he find a way to become a more honorable man? He chooses the latter, breaking his parole and taking on an assumed name. This makes him vulnerable to policeman Javert (Russell Crowe), who released Valjean from prison and whom Valjean must continually prevent from discovering his true identity. When one of Valjean’s former employees, Fatine (Anne Hathaway), falls on hard times (that’s an understatement), he promises to raise her daughter Cosette. When Cosette (played by Amanda Seyfried as an adult) falls in love with a young revolutionary Marius (Eddie Redmayne), Valjean is drawn into the 1832 Paris Uprising. Along the way, a lot of people are pretty unhappy (hence the title).

In my opinion, Hugh Jackman makes this movie. He is really spectacular and turns Valjean into a really interesting character. He basically carries this movie as he is a vast majority of the scenes and the whole thing is a lot more interesting when he is on screen. Anne Hathaway is also pretty fantastic in her limited role as Fantine. She does a wonderful rendition of “I Dreamed a Dream,” a song even those who are not Les Misérables fans know thanks to Susan Boyle’s performance on Britian’s Got Talent:

 

It is ironic that the first time I realized that Hathaway could sing, she was on stage with Hugh Jackman at the 2009 Academy Awards (I thought he was a great host).

 

While I don’t know that Russell Crowe would have been my first casting choice, I don’t think he’s as terrible as some people are saying. His voice actually grew on me as the movie progressed and I never thought it was out and out bad. I thought he was a little wooden overall in his performance, but I was expecting a real train wreck based on what I had heard. There were probably a lot of better options, but he doesn’t destroy the movie. I was actually less impressed with the vocal talents of Amanda Seyfried as I thought she was a little inconsistent in her delivery. Her vocal range isn’t really my cup of tea anyway, though, so I’d take my critique with a grain of salt.

Since I sit through many a movie, I’ve seen the 7 minute “behind the scenes” feature on Les Misérables more times than I can shake a stick at, so I was well aware that one of the major innovations for the film was that the actors sang each song live, rather than lip syncing to pre-recorded tracks. That decision has proven to be divisive, as some people (including American Idol contestant Adam Lambert) thought that the movie suffered from the raw and “unsweetened” performances. I personally liked it overall as the singing seemed to really match what was going on during the scene and was more expressive, but it also wasn’t as polished. There were times when it was a little difficult to understand the lyrics (though, to be fair, I occasionally have a tough time with understanding what people are singing at a live performance). Your overall enjoyment of the movie may hinge a lot on how much you like the employment of this technique; if you aren’t a fan, it’s a long three hours.

I had far more problems with some of the directorial decisions of Tom Hooper, who won an Oscar for his work in The King’s Speech in 2010. I thought in Les Misérables he used odd camera angles and that he was too fond of the extreme close ups of the actors; if I had to pick Anne Hathaway’s nostrils out of a police lineup, I could probably do it. There was a propensity to shoot the actors from a low angle that was used too frequently and that just wasn’t aesthetically pleasing. I found myself distracted far too often by the visuals of the movie; I’d bought in on the actors singing live, but too many artistic embellishments took me out of the experience.

What I think this all boils down to is that I am probably just not a huge fan of the source material; I don’t see myself going to see Les Misérables when the production rolls into town in April. I just wasn’t that impressed with it. I didn’t mind that it was all kind of depressing – compared to some of the apocalyptic novels I read, this actually wasn’t that bad – but I just didn’t think that there was a lot of character development. Now, perhaps this is a result of changes made for the film, but I didn’t really connect with any of these characters other than Valjean and that was from the sheer force of Hugh Jackman’s performance. I thought the songs and score were too simplistic and uninspired; to my untrained ear, I thought they all kind of sounded the same. I guess I was expecting something more sweeping. This may just fall into the category “not for me” – things that are perfectly fine, but for whatever reason just don’t connect with me.

Some other thoughts:

  • I did really enjoy Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter as the Thénardiers. They brought some much needed comic relief to these drab proceedings. If they got a spin-off musical, I would totally go see that. And it was nice to see Bonham Carter in something that wasn’t associated with Tim Burton.
  • There were only a handful of people in the theater at last night’s screening, but we were still in the vicinity of a super annoying couple that chatted through a lot of the film. It was pretty obvious that the guy didn’t want to be there – he could he heard letting out an exasperated sigh every twenty minutes or so – and he even started humming along with the music mockingly for some stretches. He did perk up momentarily when Sacha Baron Cohen appeared, but then it was back to being annoying. She wasn’t much better. They may have both been intoxicated. I seriously have the worst luck at the movies. I did contemplate taking their picture, but he looked like the kind of guy that would punch a girl without any problems.
  • Serious question: Were we supposed to read something into Javert’s seeming obsession with Valjean? Cause it kind of felt like there could have been more to that.
  • I know it is a trope of musicals and movies, but it always annoys me when people fall hopelessly and madly in love after seeing each other from across the room.
  • I’m guessing that Hugh Jackman is super annoyed that Les Misérables came out the same year as Lincoln; Jackman was really impressive, but Daniel Day Lewis is going to be a tough guy to beat come Oscar time.
  • The young man who plays revolutionary Enjolras (Aaron Tveit) also had a pretty stellar voice. He looked familiar to me and it turns out I probably recognize him from his appearances on Gossip Girl. Samatha Barks was also good as Éponine, though she wasn’t given a whole lot to do other than belt out “On My Own.”

If you are already a fan of Les Misérables, you may get way more mileage out of this film adaptation than I did. It was pleasant enough, thanks to Hugh Jackman, but I just couldn’t fully get into the story and I found the extreme close ups and camera angles to be too distracting. I thought it dragged in some places, yet oddly for a movie that was almost three hours long, I felt like there wasn’t a lot of character or plot development. Turns out that not getting on the Les Misérables bandwagon with everyone else back in the day may have been a good decision for me; despite my general affection for musicals, in the words of Austin Powers, “This sort of thing ain’t my bag, baby.”

Les Misérables is nominated for eight Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Actor (Hugh Jackman) and Best Supporting Actress (Anne Hathaway).

 

 

 

 

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One thought on “Les Misérables – A Review

  1. javaj240 says:

    The movie doesn’t compare to any stage version I have ever seen. If it’s being done where you are I would recommend seeing it. The stage version is far superior to this (or probably ANY) film adaptation. You may just see what all the fuss is about.

    I reviewed this movie on my blog. I think I reviewed it fairly. I’m not going to re-review it here in the comments, but take a look if you want. There are some videos of other Valjeans, a well.

    I enjoyed your take on the direction. I couldn’t agree more about its heavy-handedness.

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