Movie Review: Les Misérables (2012)

Les Misérables (2012)
157 minutes
Rated PG-13
Directed by Tom Hooper
Starring: Hugh Jackman, Anne Hathaway, Russell Crowe

les-miserables-poster

Grade: A-

You will find yourself in one of two categories: those who enjoy musicals and those who don’t. For the people who have lived under a rock for their entire life, Les Miserables is a musical and frankly, if you don’t like musicals then you really have no place in seeing Les Miserables, nor should anyone take what you say about it seriously. I mean, if you hate war movies you’re going to eventually tell me that Saving Private Ryan didn’t do it for you.

But for anyone who loves musicals, Les Misérables should without a doubt be near the top of their list (if it doesn’t actually top their list). It is beloved by many fans and a story originally told by Victor Hugo about a poor Frenchman who finds redemption after being punished for stealing a loaf of bread. At the throne of this epic musical is Tom Hooper, already an Oscar winner from just two years ago for The King’s Speech and also well-known for his work in HBO’s John Adams. There are obvious reasons why Les Misérables appealed to Hooper, but there were plenty of questions asked about how he would adapt the theater rendition of Hugo’s grand story.

The answers are mostly fulfilling, starting with the cast that absolutely solidified their stardom (or catapulted themselves into stardom). Hugh Jackman was the only choice as Jean Valjean in Hooper’s eyes and I cannot agree with him anymore. Jackman has the acting chops of a professional, the singing ability that has made him a Broadway regular, and the physique that complimented Jean Valjean in every way possible. There is no other actor that could’ve played this role as well as Jackman did.

His nemesis is Javert, played by Russell Crowe. Out of all the singing actors it took me the most time to get used to Crowe’s voice. Unaware that he could sing at all, and also equipped with the weakest voice in the cast, Crowe made up with his intimidating presence and intense stares. Javert is tracking down Valjean who escaped his parole and this puts Crowe and Jackman head-to-head in a handful of songs. Crowe also has a few solos, one including the powerful “Stars,” which was one of the moments when a stronger singer could have certainly enhanced Javert’s role.

After Jean Valjean rediscovers himself, he inadvertently ignores the cries from a young woman, Fantine (Hathaway), which sends her sprawling in a downward spiral of prostitution just to have money for her daughter, Cosette. Though Hathaway had a minor part in the movie, she absolutely steals the show in the first half. Her performance of “I Dreamed a Dream” is a show-stopper and the first real tear-jerking moment of Les Misérables (there are plenty of tear-jerking moments). I had to resist myself from standing up in my theater seat and applauding after “I Dreamed a Dream” was done, it was that magical.

It’s hard for me not to compare the musical with the theater musical, but I know I shouldn’t because it’s a different medium and each have their limitations and benefits. But I feel theater or on-screen, the roles of Thenardier and Madame Thenardier are the same, to provide comic relief during a very emotional and dramatic story. On paper, Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter are the right people for the roles, but their performance simply didn’t provide the laughs that they were aiming for. “Master of the House” is supposed to be great, fun sing-a-long for the cast and for the audience, but the rendition in the movie was one so exaggerated and flat that will make you question why it’s included in the story at all.

After Jean Valjean buys Cosette from the Thenardiers, the story skips ahead for the last time in the movie and provides us with a strong plot in France, the student revolution. With the backdrop of riots and screaming boys about ideas of a new king, there is a love-triangle that makes its way to the front. Cosette (Seyfried) has grown up and experiences a love-at-first-sight with Marius (Redmayne), a supporter of the revolution. Meanwhile, the daughter of the Thernardiers, Eponine (Barks) is caught in the middle of their love story as she has feelings for Marius but is the only one that could connect Marius and Cosette together. With her heart breaking, she does what she knows will make Marius happy.

The trio during “A Heart Full of Love” is one that impressed me the most. I knew what kind of singer Barks was, but Seyfried and Redmayne really fell into their roles and provided the film with a great romantic couple to drive the love story in Les Miserables forward. But back to Samantha Barks, her performance of the fan-favorite “On My Own” in the rain was one of the most powerful moments in the entire film. The 22-year-old has a bright future ahead of her.

As someone who watched the Broadway musical three times, there were plenty of alterations that the movie made, such as the sequence of songs and events, to clarify the juggling of characters and intertwining plots. While many are criticizing the close-ups that Hooper decided to shoot, I think that enhanced the experience of the musical compared to the theater experience. On Broadway, you don’t have the benefit of seeing great acting done right in front of you. Here, the actors don’t have Broadway voices, but they can certainly act the hell out of the songs, something you can never find on Broadway. So the close-ups and the uncut song sequences show a level of intimacy that raises the emotion that everyone in theater will envy.

Also, it’s evident that the movie took an acting-over-singing approach, especially with the live-recording process. So I asked myself which version of my favorite songs do I prefer? And while the Broadway actors would have their voices soaring high into the cheap seats, I’d much rather prefer a dying character’s voice to crack and whisper rather belt out a song-ending note. This was the case for songs like “Fantine’s Death” and “A Little Fall of Rain.”

Overall, this movie is one where Les Misérables fans will be rejoicing about for years to come. There is finally a music version that every fan can own on DVD and watch endlessly and be well-satisfied from the result. Song highlights include the crescendo of “Do You Hear the People Sing?” and the uplifting ensemble track of “One Day More.” But there were some bumps in the road like “Master of the House” and even the woeful “Empty Chairs and Empty Tables” where I felt could have benefited greatly from special effects. Nonetheless, Les Misérables was a great epic for people of all ages, just as long as you like musicals.

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