Lush, Operatic Les Misérables an Emotional Maelstrom
There have been more cinematic incarnations of author Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables than you can shake a stick at. It’s been filmed so many times it’s something a small wonder that people still actually read the book itself (which, come to think of it, if you haven’t actually done just that you really should, if any novel lives up to its rep as a literary classic it’s this one), iconic stars ranging from Henry Krauss , to Walter Huston, to Frederic March, to Jean Gabin, to Jean-Paul Belmondo, Liam Neeson at one time or another taking up the mantle of tortured put-upon hero Jean Valjean at some point during their illustrious careers.
Hugh Jackman and Anne Hathaway in Les Misérables © Universal Pictures
But director Tom Hooper, a recent Academy Award-winner for The King’s Speech, is the first to tackle the hugely popular Broadway musical version of Hugo’s opus, going out of his way to transpose the lavish and over-the-top theatrical production to life in as gigantic a way as possible. With every dollar on the screen, with no facet left to the imagination, he’s transposed the show, music by Claude-Michel Schönberg, lyrics by Herbert Kretzmer, to the screen with noteworthy brio, shuttling forth images and emotions with aggressively invigorating panache that’s more often than not breathlessly mesmerizing.
Yet no movie in 2012 catapulted me through so many wide-ranging reactions as this one did. I went from loving the movie, to hating it, to tolerating it, to being obsessed with every little nuance, to wanting to throw something at the screen, to wishing I could leap up from my seat and hug the celluloid as if it were a living, breathing human being. This Les Misérables had me so all over the map I didn’t know what in the heck to do with it, all of which makes attempting to write a review somewhat impossible.
First things first, however. Hooper’s adaptation still follows the expected Hugo narrative. Criminal Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) is released from prison with anger in his heart, feeling as if the French state has wronged him for dealing the man such a harsh blow for only stealing a loaf of bread. His hardened heart is softened when a sudden act of kindness changes everything, leading the former convict to break parole and reinvent himself as a respected businessman who makes a point of assisting the poor and downtrodden.
Things take a turn when Inspector Javert (Russell Crowe) comes back into his life, leading Valjean to not notice when the lovely Fantine (Anne Hathaway) is wrongly axed from his employ. Discovering her at the edge of death, he promises to find and raise the woman’s child Cosette (Isabelle Allen) as his own to make up for his mistake. Meanwhile, Javert has learned Valjean’s true identity pledging an oath to bring him to justice, dogging the man’s every move even as he tries over the years to do right by the beautiful young girl who has fallen into his care.
Les Misérables covers just under a half-century of French history as it chronicles Valjean’s struggles to evade Javert and raise Cosette (played by Amanda Seyfried as a teen) as best he knows how. There are struggles. There are triumphs. There are failures. There is love. There is compassion. There is forgiveness. And, yes, eventually, there is redemption, all of it played out on a lush, grandly operatic scale befitting the prose that so dexterously inspired it.
Thing is, for everything that Hooper gets right, there is just as much as he annoyingly gets so very, very wrong. Cinematographer Danny Cohen’s (Pirate Radio) camera doesn’t know when to stop, swooping, twirling and revolving around the characters trying to give import to every single song whether they deserve the attention or not. Sometimes, the use of extreme close-ups zeroing in on the actor’s face as they mine each lyric for maximum emotion works splendidly (see Hathaway’s stunning rendition of “I Dream of Dream’), other times it decidedly does not (both of Crowe’s big numbers, most notably “Stars,” fall hopelessly flat through no fault of the actor).
The sudden shifts in tone are also a problem, the dead-serious nature of Jackman and Crowe’s performances juxtaposed to the comic surrealism of Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen’s work(it’s like they’ve just stepped off the set of Tim Burton’s Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street in which they both appeared). The speed of it all can also be a little distracting, the constant push to go through the decades as quickly as possible hurting the innate emotional impact of much of the tragedy and human sacrifices constantly put front and center.
Yet, when the movie works, when it connects, it does so magnificently. As far as I’m concerned Jackman has never been better. His work as Valjean is striking, filled with passion, vigor and a hidden pain he’s loathe to bring forth for others, most notably Cosette, to see. He’s a fascinating spectacle, moving through scenes with elegant, sometimes downtrodden, more often than not magnanimously forthright and moral, grace that’s striking. He goes into territories I wasn’t heretofore sure he was capable of, and any and all honors sure to be thrown his way are beyond justified.
Then there is Hathaway. She is going to win the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress. Would I give it to her? No, I’d hand the award to Ann Dowd for Compliance. Does it make me sad that she’s going to win all the same? Not in the slightest. Truth be told, as brief as Fantine’s part is Hathaway dominates the film in a way I can barely believe. Her performance is one for the ages, a timeless spectacle of heart, energy, passion, pain and emotion that ripped me in two. She is magnificent, a Fantine for the ages, and whenever she was center stage this Les Misérables achieves a level of brilliance the remainder of the movie sadly only hints at whenever she is not around.
I could go on and on, Hooper’s production of this spectacle suitably lavish in the majority of the ways that matter. The supporting cast more or less rises to the occasion, newcomer Samantha Barks as the tragically love-struck Éponine and up and coming British character actor Eddie Redmayne as the revolutionary Marius particularly so, and Eve Stewart’s (The Damned United) lush and lived-in production design is a constant marvel. Jackman and Crowe play off one another with relish and fire, while the grandly operatic finale had me scrounging through the nether regions of my bag looking for additional tissues that woefully did not materialize.
Russell Crowe in Les Misérables © Universal Pictures
All the same, Les Misérables is hardly definitive, and to say it is without problems or missteps simply is not true. I felt every second of the film’s 157-minutes, and there were segments during the midsection where I was emphatically unhappy and not even slightly entertained. But when Hooper brings this spectacle to life, when he allows his actors the floor and lets them rip and roar and doesn’t try to get in their way with showy visuals or an intruding camera, Hugo’s work comes to life like it never has before, making this cinematic musical an experience unlike few others and one sure to be talked about and debated for many years to come.
- Review reprinted courtesy of the SGN in Seattle
Film Rating: êêê (out of 4)