Les Miserables, Movie Review

So, my family went to see Les Miserables last night as a Christmas present. And, I thought I’d review it.

We’ve been Les Mis fans for years. We have been watching the 10th Anniversary recording since we were all small children, and my brother was singing the numbers before he could actually talk. My sister and I would make barricades with our sofa cushions and pretend we were getting shot down in an honorable but vain quest for liberty and equality. We tied red, white, and blue sashes around our waists, and it wasn’t for America. I wanted to be Gavroche, and my favorite childhood song was One Day More. I’d listened to many, many different casts by about 10 or 11, including the French version, and yes, we watched the tour also. Michael Maguire was one of my first crushes. I became obsessively interested in vests. So, I guess what I’m saying is, my biggest hope was that it would be good enough to outweigh the annoyance of all the inevitable bandwagon fans. 😉

So, how did it hold up?

I liked it, actually. Originally, I was quite scared. I know that this is a controversial opinion, and that many of my friends find this film to be inspiring and beautiful, but I didn’t like The King’s Speech. Yes, it has a good message, and one I appreciate. I understand why people like it. But, just as a movie, and judging on movie-making alone, it’s really only okay. It has a couple decent scenes like… well, I can think of one, anyway (the scene where he lets loose a pile of swear words). Some of the colors were nice. But, the story was safe to a fault, tired, bland, with the sort of BBC costume drama acting that doesn’t translate well on the big screen, and some of the most odd and confusing  editing and cinematography I’ve ever seen.  It was by far the least interesting Oscar contender that year, and I think it only won because it was made by the Weinsteins and stood to earn a lot of money. So, suffice it to say, I was no big Tom Hooper supporter. I thought, and still think, that he robbed the Best Director Oscar from Debbie Granick.
So, my fear was it would be overly safe and conventional, aka boring, like the Phantom of the Opera adaptation and, well, Tom Hooper’s other work. Actually, there was no need to worry about that, as far as toning down the source material. Hooper went full gritty, with rotting teeth and nails, to grimy streets, diseased whorehouses, debauchery, suffering, and violence. It’s all there, in glorious color.

The cast is honestly very odd, I would say eclectic. I’d also say “weird”. It’s not who you’d expect, although any musical made in the post-musical-zenith of Hollywood is going to have an odd cast. We just don’t have movie musical stars anymore. Who is our Judy Garland? We don’t have one. We also don’t tend to have major musicals very often, and they’ve become sort of niche markets. About half the critics who disliked the movie just disliked it because… musical. It’s sort of like how many critics will dislike movies because they are sci-fi or horror, and not bother to come to the film on its own terms. And, face it, this is not a musical that musical-haters will enjoy. It’s almost all singing, and it’s not even done in the style of a contemporary musical, which tends to be more cinematic. This is not a musical for those expecting a Moulin Rouge, Sweeney Todd, or Chicago. It’s a musical for those who really, really like Oliver. That’s what it’s most like. It has the bigness of Oliver, the sentimental side, the old-timey feel, the bombastic side, the rough and crude elements, the extremes of romance. Do not be fooled, this is not and never was a realist story. It’s a romantic story, in the sense of romantic literature. It is about high principles, good and evil, love, life, beauty, hate, melodrama even. Again, if you dislike this, you will dislike the movie, the show, and the book. But, it’s something I think needs to be accepted on its own terms as a very intentional style.

As for our “eclectic” cast:

Jean Valjean is played by Hugh Jackman

Javert is Russel Crowe

Fantine is Anne Hathaway

Cosette is Amanda Seyfried

Eddie Redmayne is Marius

Samantha Barks (Eponine from the 25th Anniversary cast) is Eponine

Aaron Tveit (pictured here with James Franco’s version of Ginsberg) is Enjolras

Daniel Huttlestone is Gavroche and Isabelle Allen is young Cosette

Jean Valjean as oh, no, wait, Colm Wilkinson as The Bishop (but, seriously, he’s Jean Valjean)

Sacha Baron Cohen is M. Thenardier

And Tim Burton’s wife, erm, Helena Bonham-Carter is Mrs. Lovett… I mean, Bellatrix, oh, no, wait Madame Thenardier

My photo jokes aside, the cast is as odd as you think, with Broadway stars (Jackman, Barks, Tveit), and actors who are quite good singers (Hathaway, Redmayne, Huttlestone, Allen), and people who are just… not. The most obvious example is Russell Crowe. His acting was certainly more than competent, which really saved the role, and he would be an interesting Javert in a non-musical version. But, I can’t lie and say that hearing Stars and Javert’s Suicide performed by someone who can barely keep in pitch was not enjoyable. Fortunately, the soldier attitude worked well for the less musical scenes, and Confrontation was actually decent. In general, though, he sounds like Gerard Butler in Phantom, which is more forgivable for Crowe due to the fact that nowhere is his character described as having an angel’s voice.

Jackman is more than competent. Although he isn’t Wilkinson, he sings well and performs well. I know that some people will be annoyed at the moments where he slows the rhythm for the music, but usually these worked on a cinematic level. His character is somewhat of a larger-than-life saint, but he does well with this role. And, again, this is the sort of story that you have. It believes in saints and heroes, and so does the movie.

Hathaway, however, is brilliant. Her singing is strong, and her acting is even stronger. She’s a very competent, underrated actress, and her versatility here is just excellent. She’s raw, emotional, and carries her few scenes with a believability that is often lacking in movie Fantines. I am thinking of the truly terrible Uma Thurman Fantine, which just made me feel that she was faking illness, and would at any point grab a samurai sword and kill everyone. This isn’t just the fault of her work in Kill Bill. That Les Mis movie is horrible. But, Hathaway does very well bringing weight to what could easily be a hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold character. Her scenes are moving and brutal, and probably where Hooper’s grittiness serves him best.

Banks is also excellent as Eponine. She’s spunky and playful, in love but unable to be seen as a love interest. She’s tragic, but she’s also funny and brave. The movie takes a change with how she dies. She is not sneaking into the barricade, but rather already behind the lines and saves Marius from a bullet. I’m not really sure how necessary that was, but her death is portrayed grander in the movie.

The barricade boys are generally good, if somewhat hit and miss. Most do not have characters, but they sing well. Tveit is charismatic and has a strong voice, but isn’t quite as compelling as Michael Maguire. I can see following Tveit if I were passionate and willing already. I can see following Maguire even if I didn’t entirely want to. It’s the difference between charismatic and magnetic, I suppose, but he’s certainly a competent Enjolras, which I suppose will do. I felt he was downplayed for some of the romance with Marius and Cosette, which was frustrating because Cosette is easily the least interesting character in the book. He doesn’t, for example, lead the song Do You Hear the People Sing? as a rallying cry to arms. Rather, it’s the song of all the barricade boys as they take the streets, which is inspiring but detracts from one of the most interesting characters.

One great treat was seeing Colm Wilkinson as the Bishop whose act of mercy changes Valjean from a hateful criminal to a man of mercy. His part is small, but Les Miserables fans will be delighted to see Wilkinson, and he’s a powerhouse of a singer, even with the small role.

Another surprise delight was Huttlestone as Gavroche, who is equal parts Oliver and Artful Dodger. He’s just a delightful performer, very stage-show, very Oliver the musical-esque. His scenes bring a lot of heart to the show, and are very much in the same old-musical style that I mentioned before.

Amanda Seyfried was a weak point , vocally and otherwise. She’s an actress who inspires great emotional responses in most people (adoration and pure loathing), but for me she’s just kind of there. She’s not memorable. She’s my favorite part of Mean Girls, but that says more about how much I liked the movie than about her talent. She’s not appalling or delighting. She’s just… there. She exists. Fortunately, Cosette is barely a character, and more of a musical plot point for more interesting characters, so her ho-hum performance and slight singing ability was not too disappointing. She’s weak, and I can’t say I ever cared about her. I’ve seen warmer and more human portrayals on the stage and in stage recordings, and she was simply not that interesting. Also, some of her scenes with Valjean had a slightly Oedipal sense to them, and apparently, at least in her mind, this was intentional. I suppose some daddy issues and budding sexuality was her way to bring interest to a bland character. But, it didn’t. It was just briefly, mildly uncomfortable, like sitting in a chair and suddenly realizing it’s moderately damp. A moderate dampness was really all she brought to her performance. It reminded me of Patrick Wilson’s attempt to make also-just-a-plot-point Raoul into a weightier character in Phantom. The difference is that Patrick Wilson is talented and his character didn’t become slightly creepy. Instead, he was just slightly more annoying than usual.

However, both Seyfried and Crowe seem as if they fit in this universe. The weakest point of all was certainly, undeniably Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham-Carter. The roles they play are to give brief moments of humor to an otherwise dark story. What they did instead was bring brief moments of oh-God-no to a movie that didn’t need it. The usually enjoyable, sing-along pub-song number “Master of the House” has become what is surely one of the biggest of Big Lipped Alligator moments in cinema. Subtlety goes out the window. It’s as if Tom Hooper decided to take all of his criticism for being a pansy director and challenge the critics with image after image of depravity. Did the song really need hand jobs, verses sung under a bed where people are having sex, nudity, vomit, toilet humor, and, I am not kidding, Santa Clause sex? Read that last bit again and tell me if you think Les Miserables really needed Santa sex. But, it’s there.
Now, I’m not a prude. I think anyone who knows me and my movie tastes will attest to this. But, I don’t like things that distract from a film, and so grind the story to a halt and serve no purpose. This was just pointless and tasteless. Furthermore, it seemed like it was from a different movie. Like I said, this musical has its closest resemblance in Oliver, but this scene is like Tim Burton does Moulin Rouge. It’s all quick cuts, noise, and crazy colors and camera angles. There are little boxes for stolen glasses and jars for stolen glass eyes. Why? Its tone is entirely off from the rest of the film and has no resemblance to the rest of the movie in that this scene seems to have been composed while on acid. And, let’s not forget the costuming and style of Cohen and Bonham-Carter. Cohen is in an over-the-top guise, as one pretending to be upper class, and he affects some sort of accent and indulges in child abuse. Bonham-Carter is in a tattered dress, ratted up red hair, white face paint, and she sings about how horrible her business establishment is. For extra marks, she even gets a meat grinder scene. Why? Sweeney Todd was not that long ago, and if you must use the same actors then at least don’t give us the same characters.

This is more puzzling because Helena Bonham-Carter was in The King’s Speech in a mediocre role, but at least one that was refreshingly not her usual hag shtick that she’s been doing lately. This role is not only a major step backwards, but her acting even sets the character back. She’s just her usual Mrs. Bellatrix Lovett Burton, and the scene looks like a castoff from Sweeney Todd II: Bad Santa.

They don’t just ruin this scene. They are horrible in every, single scene they’re in. They aren’t funny. Cohen does an annoying accent (big surprise). They’re loud. They’re gross. They don’t act well. They seem stagier than the rest of the show (which feels very stagy itself). It’s just a major misstep.

The style, like I said, is older than what we’re used to in the very cinematic world of post-Moulin Rouge movie musicals. It’s very stagy. It’s melodramatic. And, you know what? I don’t mind that at all. I’m weary of the sort of stodgy, I-read-the-New-Yorker snobbery that comes into movie musical reviews. There’s the snobbery from those who can afford to only watch stage shows and are angry at the fact that the shows may be adapted for the dirty, nasty lesser folk …that the musical is actually about. There are also those who just want a naturalistic or over-stylized movie, nothing else. If it isn’t Chicago, it has to be Dancer in the Dark. But, I liked the suspension of disbelief. It had a risk to be very maudlin, but the sincerity kept it from falling to pieces. It’s a movie in which people fall in love instantaneously, passionately, and forever, and this is all right because the movie completely believes in falling in love instantaneously, passionately, and forever. It’s very like Oliver, filled with plot twists that our cynical, postmodern minds always cry foul at. But why? Why is it we seem to only want stories that show us the absurdity or brutality of life, or the dark, nasty, grotesque ends? Why can’t we suspend disbelief for a story that values virtues and honor in a way that our world so rarely does? How is that bad storytelling when we then blindly allow such dreck as Avatar to be let in as a “good” movie, or Funny Games as art?

It’s like David Foster Wallace said: “What passes for hip cynical transcendence of sentiment is really some kind of fear of being really human, since to be really human […] is probably to be unavoidably sentimental and naïve and goo-prone and generally pathetic.”

And, again from DFW: ““Fiction’s about what it is to be a fucking human being.”

To get on a side tangent, we’re so interested in portraying apocalypses, mopers and mumblers, those sort of people who sit around and say how everything is pointless and feelings are bourgeois as an excuse to hide how unfeeling and bourgeois they are… why? Why can’t we accept something that is melodramatic? In many ways, this is why I like Indian cinema. It knows it’s cinema. It’s a movie. It’s artifice. It can be melodramatic, because it’s not real life and that’s okay. We treat movies like real life and real people like movies, and it’s really quite ridiculous.

Back on subject, how did the film look? Well, I couldn’t say for certain, but it looked as if it may have been filmed. I’d like some clarification on that, though. The shots were generally very well composed, artfully so, just as in The King’s Speech. Like that movie, it sometimes worked well, like the wonderfully framed close-up in I Dreamed A Dream, which was very surprising and affective. And, other times it felt a touch artificial and overused. Not everything NEEDS an extreme close up. The cinematography went from being subtle and poetic, to losing its mind in Master of the House, and getting a bit silly in some high and low angle shots that served no purpose. But, the overall effect was fairly smooth.

The costumes, Bonham-Carter and Cohen’s aside, were decent, and very like you’d expect from the stage show. The props were also quite good.

The movie’s style, like I said, is gritty. People LOOK starving, dying, beaten down… miserable. The streets are dirty. The atmosphere is uninviting and disturbing. This works well, mostly, with the scenes with Fantine being the best, and some excellent moments at the barricade. Other scenes, like the tavern and the sewers, feel like they have gone too far and are in the realm of gross-out and less grit. The sewer scene was rather silly, looking nothing like the Parisian sewers, and being excessively disgusting. Also, how did Marius not get an infection and die from that kind of contamination? It was an awkward moment, particularly when paired with some of the sweeping landscape shots and lovingly captured close-ups that make the battered figures of the story look like art stills.

The pacing was a little off. I’m probably a minority, but I’d have liked it to be longer, and have kept the bits that they cut, as well as given us an intermission. I think that would have been a braver choice and that Hooper’s pacing problems would have been solved. As it is, we cut down on moments in the ABC Club, and get excess in the tavern, or scenes of Valjean walking in the French countryside, or escaping from Javert into the convent. This goes without mentioning the extra song, which is ho-hum and clearly only exists for a Best Original Song nomination. It’s better than Phantom’s Learn to Be Lonely, which was horrible, but it still ground the movie to a halt. I would have wanted extra time with the barricade and less time with Valjean’s thoughts about adoption.  However, it could have worked if the movie was longer and didn’t skimp on later scenes in favor of a somewhat bloated first act.

That being said, I’m nit picking. It’s not a bad movie. It’s an uneven movie, but certainly not a bad one. It has some interesting nods to the book, too, which Hugo fans will enjoy. It also has a lot of weight. In a time when we have seen so much needless violence and terror, and face such economic uncertainties, it is a hopeful story. It has a lot of social relevancy. When the barricade takes to the streets, it’s hard not to think of Occupy movements, Tehran, Egypt, the First Nations’ protest against the Canadian government. It’s hard not to read into scenes of children being killed, or of child exploitation, of thieves amidst the needy, of desperate workers, of corruption, of hard-nosed legalists. And, the hopeful message at the end is one that really feels as though it speaks to today’s viewers in a way that is surprisingly and strikingly relevant.

-C.

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