Les Misérables (2012)

Reviewer: Charity Bishop

 

Movies seem to struggle when bringing musicals to the big screen. Most of them choose actors instead of professional singers. Les Misérables takes a unique approach in having all its singing done "live" rather than prerecorded, but sadly, is somewhat undermined by its directing.

 

For the theft of a loaf of bread and subsequent escape attempts, Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) has been sentenced to twenty years in prison. Upon his release, Inspector Javert (Russell Crowe) informs him that due to his yellow passport, he will endure further hardship and persecution as a member of France's criminal class. Valjean believes he will never find kindness in this world and intends to live and die through theft -- until a kind-hearted Bishop forgives his theft of silver and redeems his soul. Through that life-altering experience, the heart of the prisoner is transformed forever.

 

Years later, he is living under an assumed name and is the mayor of a small town. One of his employees at the rosary factory, Fantine (Anne Hathaway), is discovered to have a child out of wedlock and thrown into the street. Her descent into prostitution and subsequent illness shame him into offering to care for her child in her absence. But unexpectedly, not only does Javert return into his presence, his true identity is forced to come to light, leaving Valjean to go on the run with young Cossette. Revolution, riots, and love at first sight lay ahead of them, with the formidable Javert ever on their trail.

 

Trying to transcribe this massive tome to the big screen is a difficult task. The musical is the closest adaptation to the book ever filmed but unfortunately, to capture the grand scope and many characters of the book, it sacrifices all character development. The famous figures are there but apart from Valjean and Javert, we never truly get to know them. The momentum is great and there are some standout performances -- Hathaway's close up, tearful rendition of "I Dreamed a Dream" is brutally impacting, and the vocal talent of Amanda Seyfriend and Eddie Redmayne is undeniable. Certain directorial decisions are sheer genius -- how the cast ease into "Do You Hear the People Sing" is particularly good, and the emotional drive behind "One Day More" is wonderful.

 

However, for me, the film suffered a great deal from its frantic close-ups, shaky camera work and never-ending movement. On the big screen, it creates a feeling of claustrophobia that comes near to motion sickness. Lingering long-shots may, as the director intended, create "emotional intensity" but it lessons the visual interest of certain scenes and detracts from the performances. (It works exceptionally well on Fantine's solo and Marius mourning his friends but not as well with Valjean's prayers.) There were times I wondered if the unflattering angles were chosen simply to make the film look as ugly as possible. As it is done on stage, every line of dialogue is sung instead of spoken and many of the actors have trouble with this. If you let it, it can be distracting to the point of making entire passages of dialogue pass by without impact, since we're so aware of the vocal inadequacies of the cast.

 

Some of the faithfulness to the source material lessens the impact of the underlining truths of the story -- here, we have a Javert who is not a villain so there is no real sense of urgency in our desire to keep Valjean out of his clutches. Some of the themes of redemption and salvation are overwhelmed by the sheer spectacle. Lovers of the musical will be pleased and after several viewings, I have come to appreciate it, but it could have benefitted from a more traditional approach so as not to distract from its musical magnificence.

 

  

Sexual Content:

During two musical numbers, there are several women in tight cleavage-exposing dresses while attempting to seduce or distract men (one woman grabs a man’s crotch out of camera range, though we see his look of pleasure). Sexual references are made in the "Lovely Ladies" song. Fantine is shown with her first customer (the camera focuses on her face) as he kisses her neck and lies on top of her. Later, a woman is seen on top of a man (comically depicted), with movement.

  

Language:

Jesus' name is abused six times; general profanities and vulgarities.

  

Violence:

Dozens of men are slaughtered by gunshots including a young boy. A few scenes depict men lying in pools of blood. One character commits suicide (we hear his back break with an audible cracking sound).

 

Other:

Alcohol consumption is prominent in one scene. The themes are mature in general.