I’m not a fan of musicals. Never have been, never will be. Now there are one or two that I guess I could say I like, but as a whole it is one of my least favorite genres. So why would I think for a minute that I would like Tom Hooper’s “Les Miserables”? Well as suprising as it may sound, I liked “Les Miserables” a lot and if not for its mildly sluggish pacing leading up to the final act I would have gone as far as to call it a great film. Releasing a movie like this today would seem like a risk. Modern movie fans pour money into lame raunchy comedies and brainless rom-coms so it was refreshing to see “Les Miserables” reach a wide audience. The film has a lot to offer. Just as long as you prepare yourself and know what you’re going to get.
For the few that don’t know, “Les Miserables” is French writer Victor Hugo’s classic novel from 1862. In the 1980s a musical theater version of the novel opened and became a worldwide success and remains so to this day. Now Hooper, the Oscar winning director of “The King’s Speech”, tackles the ambitious task of bringing the stage version to the big screen. Now when I call this a musical I mean it in the fullest. There may be five or six short spoken lines in the entire film. The bulk of the story is told through song and the emotional performances from the cast. It concerned me going in but after a brief mental adjustment I was connected to the flow of the narrative.
The story begins in 1815 and follows Jean Valijean (Hugh Jackman) who we see released from prison after serving a 19 year sentence for stealing a loaf of bread. After being moved by the compassion of a priest, Valijean breaks parole and heads off to start an honest life serving God under a new identity. This infuriates Officer Javert (Russell Crowe) who becomes obsessed with tracking him down. The movie jumps ahead, making stops at different time periods in early 19th century France. Valijean becomes a mayor and businessman, Javert a promoted inspector, and we are introduced to several other people who cross their paths.
There’s no need in going further into the story. I’ll save that for the movie but I will say that its an interesting look at everything from poverty to patriotism, from redemption to devastation. It takes place during a tumultuous time in French history and it translates very well on screen. The story navigates through the many hardships, tragedies, and inequalities of that era with an amazing sense of authenticity. Much of that is thanks to the sharp collaborative screenplay but a lot is due to the incredible period detail that we see throughout the entire film. There’s a real sense of place throughout the movie which was essential to my experience.
But enough of that right? This is after all a musical so I’ve got to get into the singing. Hugh Jackman was quite good in my eyes. I know some have felt that the part overpowered him but I didn’t see it. I thought some songs were better than others but his physical performance complemented his voice perfectly and I loved what he was doing on screen. Russell Crowe has received the brunt of the criticism when it comes to the singing but I’m going to defend him…well, kinda. I don’t think he’s as bad as many are saying. In fact, some of the songs nicely fit both him and his character. But I have to say there are moments where his voice clashes with the scene. For example, a few of the one-on-one singing conversations between him and Jackman just sound odd. A lot has to do with the songs themselves but some of it is that Crowe simply sounds off. But Crowe does have some good moments and his physical performance is fantastic.
I also have to mention Ann Hathaway as a poor unemployed mother who has to resort to prostitution in order to send money back to care for her sick young daughter. Hathaway is brilliant and no doubt she was the star of the show for me. While she doesn’t have a big role, every scene she’s in is emotionally charged and heartbreaking. And her voice is simply beautiful. The best scene in the entire movie is her singing of “I Dreamed a Dream”. I usually get tired of Hooper’s insistence on putting the camera right in the face of his actors. But in this scene he knows he’s capturing something special. Hathaway’s brokenness, her tears, her anguish are all vividly captured as she sings this heart-wrenching song. This is an Oscar worthy performance.
There are also fun performances from Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter as a crooked, pick pocketing husband and wife. And I was surprised at the singing chops of Eddie Redmayne. He has a pretty meaty role and never flinches. I was also very impressed with Samantha Barks and Amanda Seyfried. Both young ladies have lovely voices and I appreciated the way they poured everything into their characters. There were several other small but great cast members particularly some really strong child performances. It’s hard not to like this ensemble Hooper was able to put together.
“Les Miserables” does bog down during the buildup to its finale. For most of the film I was completely involved and for the movie to do that to a non-musical kind of guy like me is quite an accomplishment. But as Redmayne and company prepare their rebellion I felt myself drifting. Things start to feel repetitious and monotonous. But then in a snap of a finger the movie picks back up and rolls right through to its powerful and completely satisfying finale. In fact, I think “powerful” and “completely satisfying” are good descriptions of this movie as a whole. Sure it’s Oscar bait and I know it has disappointed some people, but I was surprised at how much I enjoyed this picture. This isn’t normally my cup of tea, but when a film is well made, well acted, and tells a good story I’m all in whether they’re singing the lines or not.