Film Review: Les Misérables (2012)
Victor Hugo’s masterful novel Les Misérables has been adapted into countless productions across several media, perhaps most notably with the musical sensation that arrived in the 1980s. Since then, Hollywood has looked to find a way to make a feature musical film – thankfully for fans of it and cinema-lovers everywhere, director Tom Hooper’s Les Misérables (2012) is as good as an adaption one will get from the musical source material. It is a bold, painstakingly designed production with outstanding performances, most notably from Hugh Jackman and a never-better Anne Hathaway. Although it oversteps its majestic scope and becomes grandiose at times, one should not fault the film for unabashedly wearing its heart on both sleeves. Indeed, it is an emotionally raw and intimate portrayal of the story thanks to numerous close-ups and magnificent musical numbers. As long as you do not despise musicals and can enjoy a good piece of filmmaking, you will at the very least appreciate if not love Les Misérables for its grand ambition, impressive technical artistry (i.e. striking imagery), marvelous performances and the story’s emotional resonance.
This adaptation covers all the major beats of Hugo’s novel and the musical that inspired the production. As such, it is briskly-moving, even at a bloated runtime – as such, it will simultaneously feel a bit overlong (unless you love every second of the singing and want more of it) and too short as it skims over many parts of the story, hitting primarily only the main parts instead. With so many musical numbers and a decade-spanning story, the stripped-down narrative is a necessity and one that Hugo purists may be upset by. Nonetheless, with such an elegantly crafted translation to the big-screen, such viewers can still find many things to like about the film.
For the uninitiated, the story follows convict Jean Valjean as he is freed (on parole) and seeking redemption all his life while evading capture from his obsessed adversary Officer/Inspector Javert. – (For the sake of brevity and hiding spoilers from those unaware of the story’s many twists and turns, I will keep the rest of the synopsis brief and broadly described) – He comes across Fantine, a single mother working as a prostitute to send child support to the innkeepers looking after her daughter Cosette. He promises to care for her. After raising her into a young adult, she becomes in love with a young revolutionary boy, all the while Valjean must repeatedly evade Javert.
Suffice to say, the story is quite extensive, but the film manages to strip it down and successfully bring it to life. The production design is incredible. Danny Cohen, who worked with Hooper on 2010’s Best Picture The King's Speech, captures the heart of the story with impressive set pieces as well as many intimate close-ups. However, one major gripe is the choppy editing at times and always-moving camera, particularly during the scenes in which the entire cast (of that particular scene) sings – while it adds energy to the film, it may take viewers out of the story. Thankfully, the camera rests and editing slows when individuals sing, in order to paint a more personal picture. Overall, the pacing of the story may be inconsistent, but the rest of the production is rather impressive.
Of course, the musical numbers are fantastic. Hooper employed the fresh technique of live, on-set singing instead of in-studio recordings and lip-syncing (this means the actors would lead the piano or instrument on-set). Its effect is by and large a big success as the actors have the opportunity/ability to act during their singing instead of trying to keep up with a recording. Not all of the stage musical’s pieces are used here, but the highlights are. Again, if musicals are not your thing, then I’d advise you prepare yourself to be open-minded if you want to see this movie – it rarely has even a simple line of dialogue that isn’t sung or recited to a tone or swelling music in the background.
As mentioned before, Jackman and Hathaway are excellent. He is an ideal choice to play the long-suffering Valjean. Better yet, he is more than capable of belting out the many songs his part requires of him. The sole original song of the production (not from the musical) “Suddenly” will likely garner an Oscar nomination for Best Song – a testament to Jackman’s singing ability. And then there is Hathaway, who gives the performance of her career despite being relegated to a surprisingly short, albeit significant, supporting role as Fantine. She seriously elevates the film to soaring heights whenever she is on-screen. Her performance of “I Dreamed a Dream” is absolutely breathtaking in how much raw emotion comes through – it is her Oscar-defining moment and makes the entire film worth seeing. If you cannot connect to all of the emotional beats of this production, this scene is one sure to capture everyone’s heart.
The rest of the cast is also quite good, to varying degrees. Many people have criticized Russell Crowe’s singing ability, and while it is not on par with the others or this production he still does an admirable job (in fact, I personally felt it was pretty good overall). Moreover, he does a dependable job making Javert antagonizing without turning him into a truly despicable and cartoonish villain (indeed, it is an understated, non-flashy role). Amanda Seyfried turns in a serviceable performance as a grown-up Cosette, a character who is less inherently less interesting than those around her, such as Eddie Redmayne’s revolutionary leader Marius. He makes a big jump in status and rises to the occasion and production with a very good performance. Samantha Barks, who appeared in the London stage musical, reprises her role as Éponine, the daughter of the innkeepers. She smoothly transitions from stage to the screen with perhaps the second best female performance of the film; her voice is expectedly beautiful, but her acting ability is likewise remarkable.
Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter add a great amount of levity as her dirty and cunning innkeeper parents Thenardier and his wife. While their singing abilities are not the best of the bunch, they do their best and do not really take away from the film given their cheeky characters’ behaviors anyway. Child actors Daniel Huttlestone and Isabelle Allen are great finds as Gavroche and young Cosette, both quite capable of acting and singing their parts. Aaron Tveit is solid as Marius’ fellow revolutionary Enjolras. Numerous actors who played parts in previous stage and filmic versions appear here and there, including Colm Wilkinson as the Bishop (he played Valjean in the “original” version).
In short, Les Misérables is a fantastic musical production with wonderful performances, striking cinematography, and a huge heart. Occasionally it becomes too bombastic for its own good, and the sentimental nature seeps in too much. Also, the choppy, brisk editing may take viewers out of the intimate moments. Nonetheless, the story and message(s) are worthwhile and impressively captured. It is definitely an emotional ride, at least for those who can accept the musical aspect. In all, Les Misérables is one of the most impressive productions of 2012 and a worthy adaptation of the beloved novel and musical. Whether or not this is the definitive adaptation of Hugo’s novel is another question (the 1998 non-musical version starring Liam Neeson and Geoffrey Rush is quite good as well), but one worth discovering for yourself by seeing it on the big-screen with great audio.
Les Misérables – 8.5/10