Not to belabor the WWE/Mike Mizanin joke too much – though that is kinda my thing – I look around at the other reviews of Les Miserables that have emerged, and my response is: “Really. Really? Really. Reeeeeally?” There’s a cynicism there that’s hard to fathom. And this is coming from a guy who has never been a big musical fan.
Like many others of my generation, I suspect, I never particularly “got” Rodgers & Hammerstein, Sondheim, or whoever else. I only finally learned how to appreciate the musical form thanks to Trey Parker, whose South Park movie and its predecessor Cannibal: The Musical followed the traditional conventions to a tee (even aping Les Miz in the “La Resistance” number) while being completely hilarious throughout. Then Tim Burton did Sweeney Todd, and I was kinda down with that too, even though it wasn’t all that comedic. Unlike in something like Chicago, to my relief, the songs had clever rhymes and some wit.
From what I’ve gleaned of Les Miz peripherally, it seems like the Lord of the Rings of musicals – an epic play everybody’s been waiting to see turned into a massive-budget cinematic magnum opus. And it has been, indeed. From the opening shots of a gigantic ship being towed into dock by slaves on ropes to its finale in the French revolution, this is not a movie that does things by half. Even in the smaller, intimate moments, the camera stays put on actors who sing their hearts out as they attempt (mostly with success) to make their voices and emotions the equal of all the special effects exploding all around. Yes, it’s bombastic, unironic, and quite clearly expensive. If you can’t accept that, it’s not the movie for you. But if you can take in the film’s operatic world as presented, you’ll be taken on a ride well worth the assaults on your senses.
In case you missed reading the book in English class, or seeing the ’90s nonmusical version with Liam Neeson and Geoffrey Rush, Les Miserables is the story of Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman here), a French peasant who steals a loaf of bread and is hounded forever after by stickler-for-the-law Inspector Javert (Russell Crowe). This film begins with Valjean about to end his prison sentence, only to be marked as a dangerous criminal for the rest of his life, unable to find employment and required to check in constantly with his captors. Instead he runs away, and after receiving an unexpected act of kindness reinvents himself as “Mr. La Mer” and becomes a successful businessman [UPDATE: GM in comments below clarifies that in fact “When Valjean assumes a new identity, he becomes M. le maire, the Mayor of the town.”], though not one who always runs a tight ship, as an employee named Fantine (Anne Hathaway) is cruelly dismissed by a supervisor who isn’t happy to learn she’s a single mother. Her life falls apart, and Valjean finds her again, not in time to save her, but at least take guardianship of her daughter, Cosette (the little girl you see on all the posters, even though she’s barely in the movie or the play as such), who will eventually grow up to be Amanda Seyfried.
That takes us to about the midpoint, at which the plot diverges into a love-at-first-sight story between a teenage Cosette and a young revolutionary named Marius (Eddie Redmayne). For those of us who are more invested in the Valjean/Javert dynamic – and I suspect that’s most of us – it takes some time to deal with this turn of events. The film’s least convincing moment is when Marius sees Cosette at a distance and knows it’s true love immediately, as the oft-attractive Seyfried is lit poorly in that scene and far from looking her radiant best, while Marius happens to be in the company of an absolute bombshell named Eponine (newcomer Samantha Barks), but in classic movie fashion, the fact that the latter is not blonde may seal her fate. Redmayne’s emotional and vocally strong performance recovers our attention, but it’s hard to feel much for his revolutionary band of brothers with no backstory.
It’s also tough to assess this all the same way one would a typical narrative feature – it’s sensation and spectacle, played in deliberately broad strokes, but it’s certainly demonstrative of the notion that being pitch-perfect isn’t enough when singing. To really excel, the emotion must be brought as well, and if the song’s written just right, it can be almost a cheat sheet – there’s a reason Dreamgirls‘ “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going” wins acting awards for everyone who’s able to pull it off. Here, Anne Hathaway gets a moment akin to Jennifer Hudson’s, and director Tom Hooper wisely just holds the camera on her face as she leans against the wall. Nothing more is needed; it brings the house down.
Russell Crowe is perhaps the performer most people are suspicious of here, as his singing experience is in a rock band rather than musical theater. But he’s no Meat Loaf; his vocals are thinner and reedier than one might expect, and even seem a tad off-key at first, though he brings it home by the end. It matches the character, however; this Javert is one repressed dude, and unlike Geoffrey Rush’s interpretation of the character as a sneering villain, Crowe plays him as much as a masochist as sadist, longing to be punished for his own transgressions, perceived and real.
Is the movie long? Is it lacking in subtlety? Sure. But blaming it for those things feels like blaming The Avengers for showing too many superheroes. It may be that the stage version has some brilliant way of doing things even more effectively, but I have yet to read a pan of the film that can clearly tell me what way that might be. The songs rhyme and convey emotion; if some of them bludgeon you to tears, well, that’s a feature, not a bug. There is comic relief, by the way, in what amounts to a terrific in-joke: Sacha Baron Cohen and Helen Bonham Carter show up as if they’d just jogged in from the set of Sweeney Todd to play variations on those characters as a seedy con artist couple. That they show up conveniently at so many different locations and junctures in Valjean’s life is a conceit we may or may not forgive as being a holdover from a stage production, in which it simply wouldn’t make sense to have multiple actors perform the same plot function. But once you see Cohen’s smart and snappy “Master of the House,” I think you’ll roll with it.
For a guy whose previous film, The King’s Speech, felt like a play forced into becoming a movie, Tom Hooper has now given us practically the opposite – a movie version of a play so grandiose it couldn’t be contained within the proscenium arch. It’s a spectacle that works, and worrying about plot minutiae feels a bit like searching for a seashell in the sand while a tidal wave roars in.
Les Miserables opens Christmas Day.
And that, readers, is my final film review for Nerdist, as I will shortly be heading over to ToplessRobot.com to become the new editor. It’s been a blast, and I’d be remiss if I didn’t thank Nerdist.com Editor-in-Chief Perry Michael Simon for the chance to have been able to do this for you. Nerdist has some of the best commenters ever and I will miss y’all; follow me on Twitter @LYTrules if you want to keep up. Whether you agreed or disagreed, thanks for reading. – LYT