Call me uncultured, but I have never read the classic novel nor have seen the Broadway musical of LES MISERABLES. I never even knew the plot before I saw this film adaptation of the musical. But I was really looking forward to it because I LOVE musicals! One of my favorite genres. And from what I understood, this was going to be a big epic musical. And it’s from Oscar-winning director Tom Hooper (THE KING’S SPEECH). I liked his previous movie, but didn’t think it deserved best picture. Still, I was curious to see how he would tackle a huge task such as this.
The story spans many years during 19th-century France. Hugh Jackman plays Jean Valjean, a prisoner who is granted parole by the ruthless French officer, Javert (Russell Crowe). But Jean Valjean continues to steal, due to poverty. After a run in with a holy man, he decides to go straight. A few years later, he has created a new respectable life for himself, but Javert finds him and is determined to bring him back to jail since he broke parole years earlier. Jean also stumbles upon a prostitute (Anne Hathaway) who is dying. He learns that she has a daughter that she sends money to, and when she dies, she’s concerned her child will too. Jean decides to track down her daughter, Cosette, who is staying with a couple of con artists. He eventually finds her and ends up taking care of her. Again, years later, Cosette is now grown up, still living with Jean, and finds love in a rebel named Marius, but another girl named Eponine is in love with him as well. And of course, Javert is still tracking down Jean after all of these years all the while the revolution is about to begin.
It’s a pretty huge story, and I can imagine it was hard to balance all of these story elements. It’s also not just a musical. It’s an opera. There is hardly a word spoken, as almost every line is sung. Some people will be turned off by this, but those willing to dive into this world will no doubt love it, as well as die-hard fans of the Broadway show.
To be perfectly honest, it starts off rather shaky. I loved the opening shot, which begins with an underwater shot, looking up at a flag floating on the Ocean, then the camera moves up out of the water to show prisoners trying to get a ship’s mast up. I always say the most important way to start a movie is by having a captivating opening shot, and this one delivers. But then it’s immediately followed with some surprisingly poor editing. Every shot looks great, but they just didn’t cut together very well. It was very jarring. It was so choppy that I had a tough time enjoying the first musical number. I also wasn’t sure if I liked how it jumped forward in time as fast as it did. One minute, Jean is a thief, the next he’s a highly respectful man in town. I was having a tough time getting involved with the story.
But once I got past the first 15 minutes, I got used to Hooper’s unconventional style. And the shots started matching one another. It never became choppy again. So it was just the beginning that had bad editing. The rest of it was fine. The musical numbers are filmed very differently. Usually in a big budget epic musical like this, during the songs, there would be big sweeping master shots featuring lots of extra, but the style is much more intimate. Hooper instead chose to shoot his actors in close-ups as they sung their songs in mostly unbroken takes. It definitely gave the songs a certain powerful intensity and conviction that is missing from many musicals. It was a different and refreshing approach that I really admired. I’m also glad that all of the songs were recorded live on the set, and NOT in a studio for the actors to lip sync while filming. It made the film more personal I think.
The acting is all around impressive. Hugh Jackman is probably the most theatrical, but it totally fits the movie. He dives into this juicy role with relish. Russell Crowe was a pleasant surprise here. The normally stoic actor has a lovely high tenor voice, and pulls off the character of Javert most convincingly. Of course, Anne Hathaway as Fantine, is going to win Supporting Actress just for her song “I Dreamed a Dream”. That number was so intense and powerful that it brought me to tears. Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter are a welcome comic delight as sleazy criminals. Their big number, “Master of the House” is a show-stopping hoot. Eddie Redmayne holds his own, and I really thought his final song was fantastic! Amanda Seyfried as the older Cosette is probably the weakest among the performers, and that’s not to say that she’s bad, that’s just how good everyone else is. It also doesn’t help that I felt her character wasn’t as fleshed out as it could have been. But she’s also outshined by Samantha Barks as Eponine, whose “On My Own” number is easily one of the highlights of the film.
Hooper had a pretty daunting task here, and even though the movie struggles to find its footing in the beginning, he ends up pulling it off. I’ve never seen a musical executed quite the way this one was. It’s different, and that’s a good thing. The unusual method of filming the musical numbers work for the film’s benefit. I do think because of the large amount of characters and the spanning of time cause for some of the characterizations to be lacking a bit. Not everyone is fully fleshed out. Eponine I thought was a really intriguing character, but she didn’t get a chance to be fully realized. I also thought that Cosette and Marius fall in love much too quickly, which is a common problem in musicals.
But flaws aside, this is a quite enjoyable musical. The songs and so exhilarating that it’s easy to get lost within them. The story still moved me. The sets and costumes are top-notch as well. Those that love musicals and big epics will most likely fall in love with this film. But I also think some casual filmgoers will be turned off by the non-stop singing style and 157 minute running time. Despite the shaky start, I found it to be an emotionally fulfilling, epic musical featuring outstanding performances from the ensemble cast. ★★★ (out of ★★★★)
– Rated PG-13 for suggestive and sexual material, violence and thematic elements.
– Running time: 2hrs 37min.