Review: Les Misérables (2012)

As the holiday crowds drained out of the movie theatre, I overheard a young guy behind me comment to his girlfriend, “Wow, that was depressing.” Even though I was amused by his surprise (the film’s called Les Misérables or “The Miserable,” after all), he’s right. Tom Hooper and company work hard to make you feel sad.

Unlike that surprised young guy, the legion of fans of the eighties super-musical know Les Mis is sad, and that’s one of the reasons why they’ll go see the movie. I mean, the film was primarily marketed using Anne Hathaway’s rendition of the heartbreaking “I Dreamed a Dream,” and even though the movie’s tagline affirms, “The dream lives this Christmas,” if you know the musical you know that Fantine ends her song, “Now life has killed the dream I dreamed."

To get to my point, if you don’t want to see intense emotions displayed openly and largely on a big screen, don’t see Les Misérables. When critics disapprove of works of such extravagant emotion, we call them sentimental. When we don’t mind it, we call them operatic. I’m calling this sung-through musical operatic since I believe there is a place for works of sentiment, and, to be honest, the film’s depiction of the plight of the desperately poor and Jean Valjean’s efforts to become a better person moved me. The magnitude of the feelings Les Misérables tries to evoke reflects the great degree of misery most of the characters experience. To call Les Misérables a melodrama is not to condemn it, but to describe its genre.

Russell Crowe as Inspector Javert.
Russell Crowe as Inspector Javert.

As you may have heard, unlike most movie musicals, the songs in Les Mis were recorded live on set. Typically for movies, songs are pre-recorded and then lip-synched to during filming. The live-recording process blurs the line between the acting and the singing, but even so, the best performances in the film are both well acted and well sung. Anne Hathaway deserves the attention her Fantine is getting, but it is a choice role – and perfect awards bait! In my opinion, Hugh Jackman carries the film as Jean Valjean. Eddie Redmayne, who plays the student revolutionary Marius, has a surprisingly strong voice and delivers an affecting performance, particularly during his solo, “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables.” Amanda Seyfried makes a decent Cosette, but Russell Crowe, though he is always good at glowering, has a voice too thin for Valjean’s nemesis, Inspector Javert. (On a side note, Crowe has taken some flak for his “Cap’n Crunch” costume. Correct me if I’m wrong, but didn’t officers dress like that in early nineteenth-century France? It strikes me as a feeble criticism, like mocking a film Napolean for having his hand in his coat, or a Shakespeare for wearing one of those silly Renaissance collars.)

Director Tom Hooper uses an extraordinary number of close-up shots throughout the film, as well as more of the subjective camerawork he utilized so effectively in The King’s Speech (see my earlier essay discussing that film’s technique here). His direction in Les Mis is a bold experiment that doesn’t always work. For the solo numbers – many of which are composed of long takes – the close-ups add a sense of immediacy and realism that few movie musicals contain. However, for some of the ensemble numbers, both big and small, the constant close-ups are distracting. For example, it would be nice to see the young lovers, Cosette and Marius, in the same frame during their romantic song, “A Heart Full of Love.” That said, when Hooper uses multiple close-ups of different singers to create a montage, the result works beautifully. The Act One finale, “One More Day,” builds to a rousing climax, and the montage of the suffering poor during “At the End of the Day” reminded me of the power of a montage to stir up our indignation, such as Eisenstein did in Battleship Potemkin (1925).

Perhaps surprisingly, the two most innovative films I’ve seen this winter have been big movies. The Hobbit extended the possibilities of film from 24 to 48 fps, and Les Misérables is a grand experiment in live-on-set song recording and close-up compositions. Whether or not one likes these original techniques, both films should be acknowledged for their innovation. But instead I’ve read a lot of mocking and grumbling. It would seem that all the talk about The Master being shot in 70 mm (a format not new, just uncommon) and the praise that film received as something unique really goes to show how, when many people talk about experimental and original filmmaking, their focus is on narrative structure.

7 out of 10

Les Misérables (UK, 2012)

Directed by Tom Hooper; screenplay by William Nicholson, Alain Boublil, Claude-Michel Schönberg, and Herbert Kretzmer based on musical by Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg; starring Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, Anne Hathaway, Amanda Seyfried, Eddie Redmayne, Helena Bonham Carter, and Sacha Baron Cohen.