If you aren’t already a fan of the Broadway smash about the misérable population of 19th century France, the film adaptation is not likely to win you over. It’s not bad when judged within the realm of its contemporaries (e.g. anything Andrew Lloyd Weber put his name on). But the story is, as my husband put it, preposterous. There is no way director Tom Hooper (“The King’s Speech”) could have fixed it without pissing off devotees. Instead, he produced an extremely reverent version of an often-laughable epic.
Based on the 1862 novel by Victor Hugo, the musical was written in French in 1980 and then adapted by some English guys in 1985. Despite poor critical reception, it became one of the longest running Broadway musicals of all time. The plot of “Les Misérables” is pretty convoluted and will probably sound outrageous to the uninitiated. But here it is in an enormous nutshell:
Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) is a freshly paroled prisoner concluding a 19-year sentence for stealing a loaf of bread. A particularly unwavering officer, Javert (Russell Crowe), doesn’t believe in rehabilitation and makes re-incarcerating Valjean his life’s mission.
Eight years later, Valjean has broken parole and reinvented himself as the good-hearted Mayor of a small town. He feels responsible for the fate of single mother/forced prostitute Fantine (Anne Hathaway), and rescues her daughter, Cosette, from a pair of abusive, flamboyant innkeepers (Helena Bonham-Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen).
Later still, Valjean and Cosette (now played by the doe-eyed Amanda Seyfried) have settled in Paris, where a group of dreamy, floppy-haired students are planning an uprising against the tyrannical monarchy. One of these students, Marius (Eddie Redmayne), happens to spot Cosette across a crowded, poverty-stricken square, and the two fall madly in love without having spoken a single goddamned word to each other. Regardless of the silly love business, the second half of “Les Misérables” is where everything gets exciting, as the rebels sing politics and plan their attack. Meanwhile, Javert and Valjean play cat and mouse and Cosette’s unsavory former guardians conspicuously attempt to grift everyone within spitting distance.
Hooper made several audacious decisions in an effort to capture the energy of a live performance. Though Hooper’s sets are much more elaborate than a stage production, they still exude theatrical artifice. He also instructed his actors to sing live on set, in lieu of the standard, yet restrictive use of lip-syncing. His most striking choice was to film his soloists in extreme close-up, bringing his audience face-to-face with the actors. They occasionally break the fourth wall, defying not only convention but also those audience members who might have otherwise tuned out. It’s pretty hard to ignore Hugh Jackman when his tractor-beam eyes are pulling you straight into the abyss of his nostrils. Hooper’s methods are sometimes jarring, but because of their surreal nature, they help to sell the singing dialog as well as some of the more absurd plot points.
Hands down, the best part of “Les Misérables” is the singing. Sacre bleu! Here, Hooper went for veracity, having his actors shed real tears, their voices quivering and occasionally even screaming the lyrics. His choice stands in stark contrast against the typical pitch-perfect stage performance. It serves to emotionally elevate songs that might otherwise feel contrived. Anne Hathaway steals the show by a mile with her rendition of “I Dreamed a Dream” (the song that made Susan Boyle a household name). The adorable rebels are also fantastic and clearly know their way around a musical. A theater veteran, Hugh Jackman is competent with his songliloquies, but through no fault of his own, they do go on. And on… And on… Russell Crowe is capable enough, belting out the thoughts of a blindly moral a*****e. Compared to the talent of his colleagues, however, he might as well be doing karaoke. Besides, no matter how well he performs in anything, I just hate Russell Crowe’s stupid face. This is an issue all my own.
Hooper gives his singers even more emotional resonance by uglying them up. The down-and-out French population is grotesque to the point of zombification, and the scenery so filthy, you can practically smell it through the celluloid. In extreme close-up, the normally flawless Hathaway is all blemishes and grime. During Valjean’s lean years, Hugh Jackman looks so homeless that you want to put a blanket around his shoulders and give him a mug of hot cocoa. Though they may be little more than Oscar ploys, they work.
The weakest link is Seyfried who didn’t get the memo about Hooper’s aesthetic. It’s not entirely her fault. Grown-up Cosette is bland as can be and nothing more than a pretty little plot device. Bonham-Carter and (as much as it pains me to say it) Baron Cohen also massively taint the scenery. I know this isn’t just me, because when Bonham-Carter first appeared on screen, looking like a (somehow) campier cross between Marla from “Fight Club” and Bellatrix Lestrange, the audience burst into giggles before she even opened her mouth. Baron Cohen goes balls out (not literally, in this case) with the physical comedy, channeling Peter Sellers in “The Pink Panther”. Clearly, these characters are intended for comic relief. But their shtick feels entirely out of place, as if they jammed a number from “Annie” right in the middle of this extremely melodramatic historical opera.
Regardless of its flaws, “Les Misérables” remains entertaining throughout its 157 minute run time. If you don’t usually enjoy musicals, this will be no exception, but devoted fans will surely yum it right up. If you dig musical theater at all, it’s worth a viewing just to see Anne Hathaway pwn what will undoubtedly be an award-winning role. “South Park” fans might also enjoy some of the revolutionary plot, if only to see where Trey Parker got his inspiration for “La Resistance”.