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Review: Les Miserables (2012)

*****

When I was twelve years old, I was talking to my aunt about movies (the only subject I seem to be able to talk about), and I remember her saying that she wanted to see a large-scale, multi-million dollar production of  Boublil and Schönberg’s musical, Les Míserables. And, of course, being twelve years old, I did not know what she was talking about. And through the years, I had a passing interest in the play, and I got the soundtrack to the Broadway show and thought that the music was grand. I even saw the 1998 Liam Neeson film (non-musical, but still pretty good), and obtained a better understanding of the story. But, in all of that, I never actually saw the play itself. For that, I should be flogged. But that is for another day. So, I saw the first trailer for the 2012 musical adaptation of Les Míserables, with its potentially stellar cast, tried-and-true director, and general air of majestic awesomeness, needless to say I was excited. And, after finally experiencing the film, I can say that it was worth the anticipation.

Les Míserables, based in part on the Broadway musical and in part on Victor Hugo’s epic novel,  tells stories of tragedy, love, and enlightenment through the eyes of several different characters against the backdrop of rebellion in France following the French Revolution. We have Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman), a prison convict who has found God, and is trying to make right of wrongs in his life. Then there is the ruthless officer Javert (Russell Crowe), who has devoted his life to absolute justice at all costs, and tasked himself with hunting Valjean down. Of course, we cannot forget Fantine (Anne Hathaway), a destitute prostitute struggling for her life to help her daughter, Cosette (played in adulthood by Amanda Seyfried), who is in the possession of a couple of thieving innkeepers (Helena Bonham Carter, Sacha Baron-Cohen).

Let’s get this out of the way: Les Míserables is not a perfect film. But that does not mean that it is undeserving of being called great. Indeed, the film possesses a lot of quite splendid qualities. But I had a couple of complaints:

-First and foremost, Russell Crowe was miscast as officer Javert. His acting is admittedly affecting and up-to-par, but, to borrow a line from a friend of mine, his singing sounds like he had a loaf of bread stuck in his throat.

-Though I understand that they had to keep the cameras close to the actors to maintain the quality of the live song recording, I was only slightly uncomfortable with the mind-boggling number of closeups in the film. This is a minor complaint, however. I was not too bothered, though I didn’t necessarily need an opportunity to count the moles on Russell Crowe’s face.

-During the action scenes, I would have preferred a little more steady motion. The battle sequences suffered ever so slightly from Blair Witch camera work, though I also understand that if the violence had been too clear, it may have merited an R rating, which the filmmakers seemed to want to avoid.

You may have noticed that I like to get my qualms out of the way first. And I have. Now for the good stuff.

Hugh Jackman is awesome. I think that much is established. And, knowing he won a Tony for his work in The Boy from Oz, we knew the man could sing. But, even with that pretty firm knowledge, he still manages to surprise as Jean Valjean, deftly combining his more-than-adequate vocal talent with the raw power of his acting ability. Yes, every line sung (and occasionally spoken) is done so with deep understanding, and it shows on his face. We never question what is going on in Valjean’s head. From the very first scenes, we understand the man. And, with that understanding, we experience his epic spiritual journey; every victory, every plunge into the deepest hell, and every moment of joyful enlightenment. If Daniel Day-Lewis hadn’t mopped up the floor with his work in Lincoln, I would say Jackman’s Oscar chances were sure-fire.

Anne Hathaway has done some good stuff in the past, but I never really thought she could sing, and I must admit that I really didn’t think that she could handle the role of Fantine. But I soon felt like a fool for such thinking, as I witnessed one of the most (if not the absolute most) sensitive and heartbreaking performances of this year.  I simply have to note a couple of specifics:

-Hathaway’s eyes say so much. I would say that much of the impact of her performance is due to those big, beautiful brown eyes. In the scenes detailing her loss and despair, they convey the constant state of misery that is her life. But when Valjean rescues her from these horrid depths, her eyes shine with gratitude and love.

-Her singing isn’t what you would expect. She’s not Susan Boyle or Sarah Brightman, but then again, she’s not trying to be. Let’s be realistic, if a starving, diseased prostitute was dying, she probably wouldn’t have the strength to belt it out. Not to say that her rendition of “I Dreamed A Dream” doesn’t have moments of power. But those moments are sung with more emphasis on desperation, on emotion. So instead of rising crescendo filled with perfect vibrato, we get something more authentic. Fantine is broken. She is crying her last cries, and it comes across in the performance. It’s not what you expect, but it’s good. Very good, even.

It’s not really fair to dedicate so much space to just two actors, especially when the cast as a whole does such a uniformly fine job. But Jackman and Hathaway really stand out. Even so, it is worth mentioning that Seyfried hits a home run as Cosette, with a performance fueled by unabashed sweetness and vulnerability. Eddie Redmayne shows us everything that a genuine, good man is with his turn as Marius. As the men and women of the rebellion, various colorful characters make memorable impressions, especially Samantha Barks as Éponine, the tragically loyal friend and admirer of Marius. Even in the more periodical roles of the Thénardiers, Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen make very memorable, if scummy, appearances. Heck, even Crowe gives a good performance acting-wise. Only his singing leaves much to be desired.

My, my. The acting portion takes up quite a bit of room. But the performers earned it.

I love the work of Tom Hooper, even if his work prior to this is limited to an HBO miniseries and The King’s Speech. Hooper’s work displays elegance and grace, always eliciting fine performances and visual potency. And Les Míserables is no exception. The choice to make the actors record their singing live on set is a brilliant move, forcing them to hone in on their acting chops. As a result, the final product feels authentic, sobs and breaking voices intact. Working in tight accordance with his Director of Photography and visual effects department, Hooper brings life and wondrous detail to every scene, from the grand opening number, to the grime and filth of the lower-class world, to the wonder and spectacle of the rebellion’s climactic battle. From towering cathedrals to waste-filled sewers, it’s all there, and it’s right in your face all the time. Exquisite.

Of course, the story packs a serious punch. With deep religious and moral themes, we see characters who truly find God by treading through Hell and finding each other. As the cast sings in the end of the film, “To love another person is to see the face of God.” This is shown in many moments throughout the film; Valjean first feels loved when The Bishop sees the good person within, and urges him to do the same for his fellow men. Valjean wrongs Fantine, and repays her  by devoting his life to caring for her daughter. Valjean has Javert at his mercy, and extends mercy. He treads through the sewer to save Marius’ life, so that Marius and Cosette may share in God’s greatest gift. In Valjean, we see a man who has done wrong, living his life as righteously as he can, by sharing the gift of love extended to him by a merciful clergyman.

From the breathtaking first scene to the soaring final moments, Les Míserables is a triumphant achievement. It brings back the epic movie musical in spectacular fashion, hearkening back to the days of The Sound of Music, Fiddler on the Roof, and The King and I, giving us that once-every-twenty-years experience that must be seen to be believed. I think I’ve said enough.

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About Errol Teichert

A young filmmaker, a budding playwright, and a freelance critic.

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