Film Review: Les Misérables

I really should have been more conscious of Les Misérables prior to the announcement of Tom Hooper’s adaptation.  I was aware of it, of course, but when the first trailers were dropped last year (and several friends on my course subsequently started weeping over its two minutes of footage), I felt embarrassingly behind the curve.  I haven’t yet read Victor Hugo’s novel, nor witnessed the stage musical, and I was only faintly familiar with the fundamentals of its plot.  Consequently, I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect as I headed cinema-ways to catch this shiny new production.

The story encompasses a number of different characters, sub-plots and causal arcs, but they all roughly coalesce around the central figure of Jean Valjean (Jackman), a convict recently relieved from a (completely unjust) nineteen-year sentence.  Dogged by the stone-faced Officer Javert (Crowe), Valjean defies his parole and – vowing to become a new man entirely – begins life anew.  Over the next seventeen years, his path closely entwines with that of a young working-class woman (Hathaway) and her daughter Cosette (Allen, Seyfried), with the steadfast Javert hot on his trail all the while.  All this, and there’s a bloody revolution to contend with.

Considering that the above summary barely scratches Les Misérables’s sprawling surface, Hooper has a full plate indeed when it comes to tying together each strand of action.  Juggling Valjean’s story is only the half of it: in order to really appease the fans and newcomers alike, he has been expected to depict each character reverentially, in order to maximise the emotional potency of those bittersweet musical numbers.  Thankfully, he’s just about pulled it off, with the majority of the key players given just enough time to make their presences well and truly felt.

Not that you needed further reminding, but it really is a terrific ensemble piece.  The bulk of the main cast are astonishing in how they seem perfectly suited to their roles, and in addition, most of them pack surprisingly strong pipes to make those live musical sequences hit close to the bone.  Hugh Jackman shoulders the weighty role of Jean Valjean like he was born to do so.  With all eyes on him to serve as the glue keeping everything together, as well as under pressure to provide a dazzling individual portrayal, Jackman is impressive and instantly sympathetic as the primary protagonist.  His Valjean is good through and through, yet remains strikingly authentic all the same, with that huge heart stitched firmly on those ruffly sleeves.

Russell Crowe, too, provides a thoroughly pleasant surprise as Javert.  Some have criticised his delivery as monotonous and sour, but in actuality, his limited range produces an unselfconscious and rather humanistic tone.  Javert may be an antagonistic force, but Crowe manages to keep him worthy of our sympathy, especially as the film draws to its dramatic close.  And of course, Anne Hathaway blows the house down with a one-shot rendition of I Dreamed A Dream.  No words need to be said about how wrenching a presence she is, and Hooper hits his peak when directing her battered, broken Fantine.  Don’t take those Oscar tips lightly.

Unfortunately, however, what with this triumvirate making for such engaging company, in the latter half of the film, when the focus shifts to the younger cast, Les Misérables stalls.  Amanda Seyfried and Eddie Redmayne may look the parts of the dainty Cosette and the rebellious Marius respectively, but after delving into such depths of pain and fortitude in the film’s opening act, their tale seems a trifle pedestrian.  We don’t care about their (rather dubious) affair as much as we did the compelling journeys of Valjean and Fantine, and it doesn’t help that Redmayne is easily the weakest of the headliners, in voice as well as authority.  Power to him, he does give it a good stab, but whereas the occasional rough notes dealt by Hathaway and co. merely heighten the intensity, many of his numbers wobble beneath his trembling tones.

As a result, the film’s second act hits a lull which briefly threatens to derail the film.  (I’m going to be honest, and say that, yes, I did fleetingly nod off during one scene.)  That’s not to say it’s all downhill from here: the plight of Éponine is achingly presented by newcomer Samantha Barks, and Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter add some infectious charm with their cheeky rendition of Master Of The House.  With the cast firing on most cylinders, the songs rousing and righteous and the detailing taken care of nicely (although why most of France’s inhabitants are Cockneys is anyone’s guess).  So far, so good.  But even with the story nailed, it’s in the technicalities that Les Misérables falters.

For one, the editing is rather off-kilter.  The establishing moments – particularly at the film’s opening – and the barricade scenes towards the climax are dealt with in rapid-fire bursts of imagery.  All gloriously rendered, no doubt, but dealt with in a heartbeat.  Consequently, with the world flashing by in such a whirlwind, rather than feel integrated into the world of revolutionary France, we feel like mere observers, rather than participants.

And that’s what ultimately keeps Les Misérables from being a truly great piece of cinema.  For all the accusations levelled at its arse-shattering 155m runtime, it needs more space to breathe.  Rather than taking stock in those hard-earned moments of relief, it seems to leap from one misfortune to the next.  When things do finally slow down, it sags as less engaging characters are examined.  It’s certainly not lacking in ambition, and several scenes are beautifully intimate thanks to the actors’ commitment and Hooper’s stark compositions, but Les Misérables never feels as immersive as it perhaps should.

I’m no expert, but having seen a fair sum of musicals in my time, I understand the required knack for involving the viewer in the communal spirit of the collective.  Whatever the mood of the number, most sequences attempt to make the viewer feel a part of the action, for merrier or for gloomier.  This sense of community is something which Les Misérables never quite grasps to the full.  Sure, there are characters we care for, and the actors invest such levels of passion into their performances that this should combat the issue.

The issue lies deeper, however.  For me, this was apparent in the film’s opening.  A camera glides up over wave-tossed seas, where the carcass of a toppled ship is hauled into dry-dock by legions and legions of enslaved hands.  The opening rumblings of Look Down begin.  But from here on in, although the action may be moving, its power is sapped by the fact that Hooper never seems to engage the viewer fully.  His world is sharply drawn, but ultimately, never all-encompassing.  Never once do we feel as if we are actually down there in the dry-dock with the slaves, or scurrying through a maze of furniture in the barricades, or shivering in the winter cold with the young Cosette.

While this gripe may merely be entirely personal, it did mar the experience for me somewhat.  Rather than proving to be a tear-tugging masterpiece of sound and scale, it merely felt decent – throughout, I was aware that I was watching a film, as opposed to being completely transported.  Hooper is great at displaying a world, but here, he doesn’t quite immerse us in it, and as such, the action is rendered slightly distant.

Don’t get me wrong.  Hooper’s incarnation of Les Misérables is a good film, and there are certainly more than a few truly great scenes (several of which could well prove to be Of-The-Year quality), but sadly, it doesn’t quite reach the heights I was hoping for.  It makes a valiant effort indeed, bolstered by impressive performances and some breathtaking live singing.  It’s just a shame that Hooper’s epic lacks the finesse and that extra spark of magic to serve as a great film in its own right.

On the whole, Hooper has done very well in adapting such well-loved source material into a respectful, entertaining and emotional ensemble piece.  It’s just slightly unfortunate that his adaptation is marred by pacing issues, and perhaps lacks that little extra magical spark.




Posted on January 18, 2013, in The Film World and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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