Film Review: Les Miserables

Les Miserables

I love the stage production of Les Miserables. Maybe not the most fashionable thing for a male in his mid-twenties to say, but that’s how it is. I was in a (school) production of it a while back playing various small parts, as is my inability to sing very well, and pretty much instantly grew very fond of it. I then saw the stage show in London and was blown away by it. I have, therefore, been really rather looking forward to a full musical version finally hitting the big screen.

The plot is a little complicated but I’ll do my best to explain. It’s revolutionary France and Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) is released from prison on parole. However, he breaks his parole and goes on the run, pursued by the fiercely law-abiding Javert (Russell Crowe). Years later, Valjean, now a town mayor, comes across the dieing Fantine (Anne Hathaway) who turned to prostitution after Valjean failed to stop her getting sacked from her job in a factory. Wracked with guilt, Valjean agrees to take custody of Fantine’s daughter Cosette who is living with corrupt innkeepers The Thenardiers (Sacha Baron Cohen & Helena Bonam Carter). Fastforward eight or nine years and French students are planning a revolution. Cosette (Amanda Seyfried) is still living with Valjean and falls in love with student rebel Marius (Eddie Redmayne) who is also the apple of the Thenardiers’ daughter Eponine (Samantha Barks). Javert continues to pursue Valjean as the students’ uprising begins.

And breathe. A bit longwinded, that, but a short synopsis simply wouldn’t do the story’s scale justice. It’s a story of epic proportion and quite the undertaking for The King’s Speech director Tom Hooper. Les Mis has been brought to the big screen a couple of times but never as a faithful adaptation of the long running stage show, and Hooper wants to hammer home the message that this is pretty new ground for the musical.

Anne HathawayFor example, when you’re in the theatre, depending on where you’re sitting, everything is somewhere around medium/medium long shot distance, but here Hooper gives us shots and angles you simply don’t get in the theatre – namely long shots and close ups. So many close ups. Most solos are accompanied by a personal space-invading close up, allowing us to get more from the facial expressions that you perhaps would from viewing a stage show. This is a clever tactic but one that becomes a little weary when it’s been done for the 43rd time.

Same goes for the long shot, whether it be static, sweeping, soaring, tracking, etc; we’re constantly being reminded that this is something that film offers us that the stage cannot. However, this is completely at odds with many of the locations which don’t disguise the fact that they’re filmed on a sound stage. There’s actually a claustrophobic feel to many of the locations, giving the impression that there’s nothing beyond what’s not on screen. Whether this is intended as some sort of homage to the stage show is anyone’s guess. This also leads the film to feel like a series of set pieces, rather than one continuous story. On stage, sets and characters come and go seamlessly, but the film-exclusive feature of editing eliminates this, which doesn’t help the fluidity of the story.

Onto the performances. Hugh Jackman is excellent as Valjean, flexing his rather impressive vocal chords and further establishing himself as one of the most depressingly perfect men in the world. Eddie Redmayne is also impressive in his breakthrough role as Marius, whilst Samantha Barks does admirably in the role of Eponine she reprises from the West End show. Much credit also, as has been said many times already, must go to Anna Hathaway. As Fantine she gives a performance so heart-achingly affecting that, although she’s only on screen for a short time, she steals the entire show, her rendition of ‘I Dreamed a Dream’, sure to go down as a career-defining moment.

Les Mis - at the barricadeSo there’s the good; how about the not so good? Probably best start with Mr Crowe. In short, Russell Crowe can’t really sing, which is pretty important in a musical. Javert should be intimidating, but Crowe’s faux rock star gravelly rasp just doesn’t sit right. He’s trying to hit notes his voice just wasn’t meant to hit. That said, it’s not a complete abomination that many have suggested. Amanda Seyfried must also come under fire in the vocal department. She’s another name to add to the poster but her voice is so shrill at times that only dogs and bats can actually hear her.

Les Miserables isn’t a short film and the second half of the film doesn’t quite grab the attention as consistently as the first, although this issue is rooted in the stage show rather than limited to the film. It does feel ever so slightly on the long side but when you consider you would normally have a 15 minute interval half way through, this is hardly surprising. The majority of the music in the second half doesn’t carry quite as much energy as what’s come before, with many of the key songs being slow, downbeat affairs. The main storyline also shifts dramatically from that of Valjean to the revolution, which feels a little jarring considering we have spent no time invested in this storyline up until then. It’s a long way into the film to introduce such a major story arc.

The good in Les Miserables vastly outweighs the bad and I’m perfectly happy with the way it has been adapted for the screen. Indeed, some of the problems it does have come from the source (by source, I mean the musical, not the Victor Hugo book). It may take some a little time to get used to characters singing literally almost every single line, but that only adds to the experience. It was a directorial masterstroke by Tom Hooper to have all the actors sing live rather than dub them in post production as it really helps convey the emotions of the characters and give it a more realistic feel. Not all works transfer effectively from stage to screen but this is one that was long overdue and, baring the odd falter, has done so with bags of emotion and raw power.

4 pigeons

4/5 pigeons

Chris

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49 thoughts on “Film Review: Les Miserables

  1. mettelray says:

    I’ve gotten a certain idea of Les Mis being disappointing but I see you have given it a high score. I’m just wondering how much your own experience with it affected the movie watching itself.
    Though I’m not into musicals and have bad musical hearing, I think I will still watch it. Especially since I’m trying to go through all Best Picture nominations.

    • Well I knew all the songs, how the story would pan out, etc, so it must have affected my experience somehow. I knew I’d like the music in it, but there were elements of the direction I didn’t like and because I knew the story, nothing was much of a surprise.
      I would be very interested to hear you thoughts on it though if musicals aren’t your thing, especially as absolutely everything is sung in it.

      • mettelray says:

        Well, I did like Moulin Rouge so.. there’s a bit of hope. Though, I’m not a fan of Crowe nor have I liked Hathaway this Oscar season with her innocence act.. But Jackman will win me over again for sure.

      • I’m not the biggest Crowe fan either and his singing isn’t great in this, but he does a decent enough job. I just can’t believe they couldn’t have found someone better. I don;t get the Anne Hathaway hate though, I’m not quite sure what she’s done to make people not like her! She’s great in this!

      • mettelray says:

        Well, it’s the way she presents herself.. as an underdog or that teary frontier she puts on. She’s been successful for years, it doesn’t come as a surprise she is appreciated but she does the opposite. Maybe it’s just my female envy or whatever but yes, I’ve never really loved her anyway.

      • I see! I had never noticed that underdog thing before. Thanks for giving me some female perspective on it! 🙂

  2. Hunter says:

    I really liked Les Mis. I actually saw it twice because I went with different groups of people, and I liked it so much better the second time because I already had some experience with the music and I was prepared for how basically all the lines would be sung. I agree that it was long and I don’t see why they can’t give us intermissions in movies. They used to do it back in the sixties with The Sound of Music and Lawrence of Arabia. The first time I saw Les Mis I actually saw Django in the same day and that took at lot out of me because both are so long. But it’s even sillier not to put an intermission in Les Mis because there is a clear spot for one when the story changes focus to the revolutionaries. To quote Alfred Hitchcock: “the length of the film should be directly related to the endurance of the human bladder.”
    But regardless of this I am really coming to love the music and originally it kind of bothered me because I thought all of it sounded alike. Even if movie musicals in general are not exactly like or as good as stage versions it’s important to have them so they can be saved for long periods of time, you know? So I’m glad they made one of Les Mis because I probably wouldn’t have seen it otherwise.

    • I have a feeling that when I first saw Titanic in the cinema they had an interval and it could definitely work for some films. Like you say, Les Mis is perfect for an interval as it’s very evident where the first act ends. It might kill the pacing of some films though.
      I’m very glad you got to see this if you wouldn’t have really considered the stage show. It is worth going to see that if you get the chance and liked this as it flows a bit better. I found this jumped around a bit, but that’s not as evident in the stage show.

  3. ckckred says:

    My thoughts were similar to yours. I’m not a musical person, but I did enjoy the film overall. Tom Hooper’s direction was distracting though, especially that he used close-ups in pretty much every shot. Nice review.

    • Cheers man! I definitely agree his direction was distracting and I’m not actually sure as to whether he deserves his Oscar nom, although, as I said in the review, it was a brilliant decision to get them to sing live. There were weird canted angles at times too, which were just disorientating.

  4. Nostra says:

    Well worth checking out and I really enjoyed it! Although part of me wishes there would be some normal dialog instead of only the singing.

    • That’s a fair point as the constant singing of the dialogue isn’t for everyone, I understand. I really like it though, for the most part, and love hearing the various refrains popping up throughout. I do wonder if they had only had the big songs in whether it would have been as effective.

  5. sati says:

    You liked this one much more than I did. I thought Fantine’s scenes were much too short and I didn’t feel connection to her, hell I didn’t even cry during her big moment. But I agree about Jackman – he was excellent and in my opinion carried that movie.

    • That’s an interesting point about her scenes being too short. The problem with everything being sung is that the scenes are completely bound by the music. The lyrics are already there and so to lengthen the scenes, they would either have to write new songs or have silence.

  6. Yeah, that’s a fair review. “Les Miserables isn’t a short film and the second half of the film doesn’t quite grab the attention as consistently as the first” is my biggest problem with it personally, along with the fact that the constant singing eventually wore me down.

    Hathaway and Jackman were great though. And Russell Crowe? Well, bless his heart for trying. LOL

    • Ha! Exactly! Crowe is clearly putting in a lot of effort but just doesn’t quite have the vocal chords to compete with most of the others. The pacing of the second half of the film is definitely slower but that’s the case with the stage show too, it just doesn’t have as much energy.

  7. filmhipster says:

    My wife saw this last night and was balling her eyes out.

  8. Mark Hobin says:

    I actually liked Russell Crowe. His voice isn’t anywhere close to as good as Hugh Jackman’s, but it’s not the ears bleeding horror that Pierce Brosnan was in Mama Mia! Crowe gets the emotional component down perfectly with a great performance that made me see things I hadn’t in the stage play. Overall you enjoyed the film and I agree with you. It’s one of the great musicals of our time. Nice review!

    • Thanks Mark! Crowe did a decent enough job for me but with a musical as grand as Les Mis and a part as important and powerful as Javert, I don’t think ‘decent enough’ cuts it. His singing isn’t a total train wreck but he just sounds like he’s struggling a little too often for me. And I agree that it will go down as one of the great film musicals of our time, at least I hope it does.

  9. CMrok93 says:

    Good review. One of my favorite movies of the year, and probably one of the best musicals I’ve seen done in a long, long time.

  10. ruth says:

    Another stellar review of this one. I might have to see this on the big screen at some point, maybe when it’s out in the discount theater. I’m not surprised to see Jackman’s getting praise, he’s quite a multi-talented actor and sounds like the role is tailor-made for him. I quite like Eddie Redmayne too, he was good in My Week with Marilyn.

    • Yeah I think Jackman is spot on for the role, he’s got pretty much everything needed to pull it off. I haven’t seen My Week with Marilyn but Redmayne is decent in this; he’ll definitely be in some demand once this has died down a bit.

      I would definitely try and see this in the cinema, but what’s this discount theatre you speak of? As far as I’m aware, we don’t have such a thing here…

      • ruth says:

        I’d love to see fresh British crops like Redmayne in Hollywood. I always prefer Brits than US actors. Oh, there’s a cheap theater not too far from my house that plays films that are no longer in the mainstream cinema. So they’re good for in between times before the movies go on dvd. It’s only $2.50, maybe it’s $3 bucks now, but still that’s more than a half off the regular fare!

      • I think that’s a brilliant idea! There’s been loads of stuff that i’ve missed at the big cinemas but still wanted to watch. I’d love to see something like that here. I have dreams of owning my own cinema so maybe that’s my niche! I’ll give you free tickets of course Ruth 🙂

  11. keith7198 says:

    4/5 stars for me too. This was a surprising treat for me. I wasn’t expecting to respond as strongly as I did to it. A welcome surprise. Good review here!!!

    • Thanks Keith 🙂 Good to see it was a nice surprise for you! I wasn’t so much surprised as I liked the musical anyway, but I was more relieved that it didn’t completely bomb and they actually did a decent job of adapting it for the screen.

  12. Mark Walker says:

    Great write-up Chris but this just isn’t for me. I’m not a fan of musicals. I get bored too easily so I’ll be avoiding this for the forseeble future I think.

  13. thedavidryan says:

    Great review, loving the pigeon rating.

  14. cinenemablog says:

    I couldn’t stomach the movie. As much as I love musicals, after 30 or 40 minutes I was over and done with it. I found the actors grating and insufferable. The music, sure, there are some nice bits and bobs to put it that way, but it’s too bombastic (this coming from a mid-twenties man that shrills like a little girl every time The Phantom of The Opera is playing).

    Oh well! Nice review, though.

    • Thanks mate! This has easily been the most divisive movie I can remember, so many people love it but so many hate it too. It’s definitely not for everyone, I appreciate that but I liked it for the most part. And I’m also a mid-twenties man who loves Phantom of the Opera! 🙂

  15. Great comprehensive review. I gotta say that Russell Crowe’s “crowing” was exactly what I wanted and worked very well IMO.

    He’s a soldier…not a singer. He had the type of voice that I would’ve expected from a hardened veteran soldier who lived in a world in which the primary medium of communication is via song. That’s what I understood what Hooper was shooting for and Crowe nailed it exactly. It added to the “reality” of sorts that is often lost in musicals…because you’ll be hard pressed to find real people in those situations that can sing tremendously well all in one place.

    I think Hooper’s fault here is in adding too many people that could sing super well as opposed to a better mix of a few more not-so-polished singers to foot the bill in diff roles.

    just my thoughts. I loved reading your review…and there’s nothing wrong with being in your 20’s and proclaiming you love Les Mis! 😀

    • Haha, good to hear, I was concerned about losing man points over that one! And thanks for the nice words 🙂
      I do get that Crowe’s character does fit that sort of gravelly rough around the edges singing but I just felt Crowe was trying too hard to stay away from that and was trying to do it a bit more traditional but his voice wasn’t up for it. A lot of it was too high for him and he was stretching for the notes and sometimes it was just flat. You can still have a gravelly voice and be in tune, but to me he sounded as if he was trying to compete with the others and couldn’t do it. It’s by no means an abomination though, it still works well enough, I just think they could have found someone better.

  16. Great review. Still almost a month left before this one opens here, sadly.

  17. Stu says:

    I’ll be honest, i’m not a fan of action movie stars singing in films, but this brings me on step closer to believing there could be a part for Jason Statham in a remake of ‘the sound of music’ or any future muppet film.

  18. Great review. I agree with you about the long shots – this is an area where the film really could have had the edge over the stage but the sets are quite limiting. Like you say, I read this – along with the blurry, painted effect of the skylines – as an homage to the theatre, but the potential to do so much more with it makes it seem like a missed opportunity. I visited the Harry Potter studios at Levesden recently and a friend mentioned how alike Les Miserables’ Paris looked to the set of Diagon Alley, with a central, wobbly building looking very Gringotts-esque!

    • Thanks Natalie. I would love to visit the Harry Potter studios, I bet that was amazing! I can definitely see the similarity you mentioned, particularly with the area where the students had set up the barricade. There were some wonky looking, almost Tim Burton expressionist style sets, which I thought a little odd. It didn’t look realistic in any way.

  19. Mr Rumsey says:

    Great review 🙂
    I’ve only just got around to seeing this one, despite having wanted to for ages! Like you I’m a fan of the musical and so was glad to see the film deliver – even if certain things could have been improved.

  20. vinnieh says:

    Great review, I watched this the other day and thought the use of live singing was amazing.

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