Starring: Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, Anne Hathaway, Amanda Seyfried, Eddie Redmayne, Sacha Baron Cohen, Helena Bonham Carter, Aaron Tveit, Samantha Barks, Daniel Huttlestone, Colm Wilkinson, Isabelle Allen, Natalya Wallace, Marc Pickering.
Director: Tom Hooper
Rating: PG-13 (for suggestive and sexual material, violence and thematic elements.)
Running Time: 157 Minutes
Release Date: December 25, 2012
Home Video Release Date: TBD
North American Box Office: $TBD
Working Title Films, Cameron Mackintosh Ltd, and Universal Pictures.
Written by: Screenplay by William Nicholson, Alain Boubil, Claude-Michel Schoenberg, and Herbert Kretzmer; adapted from the stage play “Les Misérables” by Alain Boubil and Claude-Michel Schoenberg, as well as a book of the same name by Boubil and Shoenberg and a novel of the same name by Victor Hugo.
★★1/2 (out of 5 stars)
Acknowledging the power the stage production has on those who witness it, Les Misérables is a film that will definitely play to its base, hitting every expected and needed emotional beat in a film which runs more than two-and-a-half hours long. Tom Hooper’s follow up to his Oscar-winning The King’s Speech is an ambitious and daring effort with Hooper’s recent Oscar successes not only affording him a healthy production budget, but an impressive ensemble cast of A-list stars and young performers on the rise. At first blush the film is immense, appropriately rugged with requisite grit and grime. Unfortunately, Les Misérables is a rather curious disappointment. While consistent in terms of its gospel truth in faithfulness to the beloved stage production, under Tom Hooper’s direction the film is a scattershot and cumbersome production whose lasting emotional impact becomes stunted under a pretentious director’s foolhardy decisions.
Make no mistake, Les Misérables has power in key moments, including an impressive opening act with immediate focus placed on Hugh Jackman’s Jean Valjean. On the cusp of a paroled release from prison after serving 19 years for stealing bread, Valjean’s nemesis is Inspector Javert (Russell Crowe), who grants Valjean his parole, and then loses track of his whereabouts. After crossing paths with a wealthy factory owner who Javert later identifes as Valjean, operating with an assumed new identity, Javert vows to find a way to imprison him once again. Here, in these opening minutes, we also meet the beautiful single mother Fantine (Anne Hathaway).
Fantine has a daughter named Cosette and finds herself having to scrap and scrape for work after a conflict in the factory costs her a job. She gives up her belongings, her long and gorgeous brown hair, as well as her dignity all in the hopes of giving her daughter a life better than she could ever hope for. As Cosette grows up (Amanda Seyfried and Isabelle Allen play Cosette older and younger), she is raised by Valjean, likewise unaware of his real identity. Swirling around everyone is a growing sense of revolution, in 1832 Paris, with a host of rebellious students attempting to bring about an uprising. Tensions escalating, Cosette falls for fellow student Marius (Eddie Redmayne), who is equally loved by Éponine (Samantha Barks), daughter of two wild and crazy innkeepers (Sacha Baron Cohen, Helena Bonham Carter), who raised Cosette prior to her moving in with Valjean. Marius’ heart however lies with Cosette and as love stories emerge and the political upheaval breathes imminent, Javert continues his pursuit of Valjean.
The problems start to surface almost immediately after one of the year’s most powerful and moving scenes reaches a heartbreaking repose. When Anne Hathaway departs from the film, after an incredible performance of the iconic “I Dreamed A Dream”, which Hooper films in one extraordinary 4-and-a-half minute take, the film truly never recovers. While we do have an exciting and humorous introduction to the innkeepers, Hathaway’s performance is too stunning and affecting to be quickly forgotten, but Hooper pushes Les Misérables onward, dovetailing his film into pretty and impressive looking boredom and mediocrity. Although there is a soul stirring number from Samantha Barks (“On My Own”), much of the middle portion is arduous. The actors come and go, the songs largely fail to stand out from one another. Hooper’s take on the material and his attempts at building towards the revolution needs to become more tangible and real to the viewers with song after song and scene after scene. Under Hooper’s direction, sadly these moments never sinew appropriately.
All of this becomes more aggravating when the final 20-25 minutes rival the strength and intensity of the opening act. The migration Hugh Jackman makes as Valjean is staggering and the seasoned actor has never given a finer on-screen performance than this one. As he ages and truths become revealed in the final moments, Jackman’s embodiment of Valjean is one of the few true resonating elements of the film, his fragile depiction of Valjean shows that in many ways this role was Hugh Jackman’s to play. Eventually in the final minutes, Amanda Seyfried and Eddie Redmayne share moving and affecting scenes with Jackman and much of the lasting emotional impact people regale about with Les Misérables starts to return.
With the entire film “sung through”, Les Misérables stands apart from other musicals which incorporate musical interludes to push the story along. Tom Hooper’s well-documented decision to record live on set, as opposed to having his actors lipsync to pre-recorded studio recordings does, as Jackman, Hathaway, and others in the cast have noted, bring the emotion to a real and winning place for not only the actors, but viewers as well. When Jackman is desperate, we feel it. When Hathaway cannot stop sobbing mid-song and fights through tears and a broken voice to gut out her musical epitaph, we are right there with her, transfixed on her broken face, likely matching tear for tear.
And yet, there are a lot of problems which simply cannot be ignored, and those failures rest squarely at the feet of Tom Hooper. Where the stage production relies on bigger and grander direction to induce emotion, Hooper opts for near constant close ups and depletes the chance for viewers to take in the scope and power of the entire story. Only when the extraordinary takes place with Jackman and Hathaway or Samantha Barks’ song or Eddie Redmayne’s stunning take on “Empty Chairs, Empty Tables” can Hooper’s film withstand his interpretation. Much of Les Misérables feels claustrophobic, akin to someone telling you something very important to them but holding your face tightly in their hands while they do it. The tight and frequent closeups force all the film’s communications to go merely one-way, minimizing perspective and never allowing viewers to engage with the film the way they can on the stage.
Tom Hooper’s Oscar-winning The King’s Speech, a film I greatly admire by the way, did usher moviegoers into the Hooper aesthetic; tight distorted closeups, hyperkinetic camera movement, rather frenzied editing, a rhythmic cadence to the dialogue and sweeping impassioned moments that can bring a tear to the eye. In the mixed bag that is Les Misérables, every last drop of that Hooper style is on display, for better and for worse.
Les Misérables will elicit a strong and visceral reaction, but with so much of the film an exhausting slog, not only will you need to collect yourself from the emotional power of Hugh Jackman and Anne Hathaway’s career best performances, you will also require fresh air and open spaces because with Hooper’s discordant take on the beloved stage production, his Les Misérables is a constricting and tenuous affair.
SHOULD I SEE IT?
- Anyone familiar with the stage play or those with a keen eye on Oscar hopefuls will have already lined up or made plans to see this.
- Anne Hathaway is clearing mantle space for an Academy Award as we speak and Hugh Jackman is likely to earn a well deserved first Oscar nomination. Clearly, these two performances, as well as tremendous individual songs from Samantha Barks and Eddie Redmayne are the standouts here.
- Les Misérables benefits from Hooper’s decision to sing live on set, as opposed to having his actors lipsync their studio recordings. Despite my issues with the film, this unique and frankly necessary tactic works well in connecting viewers to the emotional arcs of the characters.
- Sigh. I am tasked with evaluating Tom Hooper’s film, not the Victor Hugo novel or the Boubil/Schoenberg stage play. With that said, the film, in totality, missed with me far more than it succeeded. Hathaway and Jackman are incredible and the film is arguably worth the time just to watch their performances, but the rest of the film left me disengaged and uninterested in the plight of everyone not named Jean Valjean or Fantine.
- Tom Hooper’s verbose and miscalculated directing of the film stands in stark contrast to the emotional beats people praise and never forget from the play. His close ups are distracting, the film is edited haphazardly, and he fails to generate excitement in the crucial middle portion of the film. Perhaps his vision far outweighed his abilities and I have to think that a better, more skilled director could have made this one incredible film.
- The actors sing and perform virtually every line in the film. That is not a reason to avoid the film, quite the contrary. However, if somehow you do not know this fact and dislike or avoid musicals, Les Misérables is not the movie for you.