Film Review: Les Misérables

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Hugh Jackman's Jean Valjean pushes a little too hard in director Tom Hooper’s Les Misérables. Hugh Jackman's Jean Valjean pushes a little too hard in director Tom Hooper’s Les Misérables.

Blockbuster musical Les Misérables lacks cohesion in its jump to the big screen

A few weeks ago I wrote that the Gerard Butler-starring Playing for Keeps was certainly one of the worst movies of 2012. I should amend that to note the following: It comes as no surprise Playing for Keeps is terrible. Look at its cast, its title, its premise, and its grimy photography. There’s nothing there to suggest it would ever be a good movie.

I mention all this to give Les Misérables context in the annals of film history. Unlike Playing for Keeps, Les Misérables features a solid cast. Hugh Jackman, a man known for his acting and singing chops, is Jean Valjean, the hero we love. Russell Crowe, who has his fans, is Javert, the icy arm of the law determined to send Valjean back to prison. Amanda Seyfried, who has Mamma Mia under her belt, is Cosette, the girl Valjean raises as his own. And Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter, two actors who know from screen comedy, are there to provide laughs.

It’s something of a grand misérables, then, that Les Misérables is one of the worst movies of 2012, and definitely the biggest misfire. What this screen version of the beloved stage musical needs but doesn’t have is the artifice of theater. Any time we move on stage from Jean Valjean’s high drama to the lowbrow humor of innkeeper and thief Thénardier (Cohen), we’re given a pause as the sets adjust. On screen, we cut and it’s jolting: We were just crying! Now we’re laughing? In three seconds?
A theater with an enormous set and live actors also makes the story’s lack of narrative cohesion easier to take. Here, the holes are big and glaring. Why, exactly, does Éponine (Samantha Barks) love Marius (Eddie Redmayne)? Or Marius love Cosette (Seyfried)? Why is there revolution?

Those screenplay and pacing aspersions aside, director Tom Hooper does the production no favors with his decision to film the actors almost exclusively in close-up as they sing. Singing live on film, not lip-syncing, may have worked but Hooper is so interested in letting the audience know—Look! Look! They’re really singing!—it drains anything resembling drama or tension or humor or pathos from the screen. It’s enough to make one wonder how Hooper ever got an Academy Award nomination for Best Director for The King’s Speech.

Because of the choice to show the actors in close-up for the bulk of their performances, this movie has no sense of place. What’s the point of building grand sets if 98 percent of Les Misérables is just faces? As for the music and singing, the repeated themes that work well on stage become monotonous on celluloid. Jackman is overwrought and uses more vibrato than is ever necessary, Seyfried does her best Adriana Caselotti impersonation, and Crowe sounds as if he’s struggling to hit the notes. Anne Hathaway is excellent, the one truly bright spot in this mess, but she’s gone fast. See Les Misérables on stage (again) instead..

Les Misérables

PG-13, 157 minutes/Regal Stonefield 14 and IMAX

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  • lanzthirteen

    Wow, you must have seen a different version!!!

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