Les Miserables. Who could deny such an Oscar-bait movie? Well, the Oscars, for one; Les Miserables got two awards out of all the nominations it received, one of them being for makeup and hair styling. But hey, Les Miserables is still more or less a critical darling and has been on my watchlist since I saw the first trailer almost a year ago. So how does it stack up?
Les Miserables rehashes the story of the French classic by Victor Hugo. The story is a great one: protagonist Jean Valjean, a man imprisoned for stealing bread to feed his sister’s starving family, is released on parole after 19 years and is compelled by a beneficent priest to turn his life around and become a good man. Moved by the priest’s warmth after being turned away by so many others, Valjean tears up the passport papers declaring him a criminal, breaking his parole, and pledges to live his life as God intended, helping others and starting an honest life under a new identity. Years pass, but Valjean is constantly hounded by one Inspector Javert, whose strict adherence to the law compels him to capture the man for his lapse in regards to the terms of his parole. Things become even more complicated when Valjean’s fate becomes intertwined with Fantine, a struggling factory worker, and her daughter, Cosette.
Hugh Jackman was nominated for Best Actor at the Oscars this year for his performance as Valjean. Unfortunately, he was up against Abraham freaking Lincoln. But while Jackman went home empty handed, that’s not to say his performance was any less good; his Valjean is great. His acting, combined with some truly soulful singing, resulted in a performance that was very emotional. I only have Liam Neeson’s 1998 performance to compare to, but I’d have to say Jackman was better. Throw in the fact that Jackman was singing on top of acting, and the choice becomes even clearer.
Let’s talk about Russell Crowe. Going into the movie, I’d heard a pretty general consensus about Crowe’s Javert: his acting was decent, but his singing was not up to par with the rest of the cast. I paid careful attention to him, and I decided that his singing isn’t bad and was not detrimental to the movie. However, I will say that I didn’t find his performance as Javert very compelling. Even his big solo wasn’t enough for me to connect with the character. Geoffrey Rush played the role in the 1998 film adaptation, and I much preferred his performance to Crowe’s. If you like good acting, pick up a copy of Gladiator. I hear he’s much better in that one.
Anne Hathaway landed the Best Supporting Actress award for playing Fantine in Les Mis. I don’t care how much of a powerhouse her rendition of “I Dreamed a Dream” was, she was in the movie for like 15 minutes, tops. That does not deserve an Oscar. Samantha Barks gave just as emotional a performance when she sang “On My Own,” and she was in far more of the movie to boot. She deserved the nomination, at least, because she was probably the break-out performance of the movie. Helena Bonham Carter was also great as Mrs. Thenardier, a delightfully unscrupulous innkeeper alongside her husband, the equally compelling Sacha Baron Cohen. Meanwhile, Eddie Redmayne was also good as Marius, the student revolutionary with the too-modern-and-stylish-for-the-nineteenth-century haircut. His romance with Amanda Seyfried’s Cosette is believable and definitely could have been handled a lot worse by a lesser performer. Seyfried plays the role as the film’s central theme of innocence and goodness well, and her singing is pretty great, too. All in all, Les Miserable had a stellar supporting cast, almost all of whom were in the movie for longer than 15 minutes.
This was the epic Les Miserables adaptation I imagined when I first heard Oscar-winning director Tom Hooper was at the helm. The story he conveys on the backdrop of political strife is extremely compelling, and quite possibly my favorite telling of it, stylistically. A lot of the imagery here is extremely poetic, and his choice to do live singing instead of the more traditional lip synching paid off in spades: The acting and singing in this movie blend so seamlessly as to make you wonder why all musicals aren’t made like this.
The Les Miserables story is pretty well-worn at this point, but the way it’s told by the team of screenwriters is both unique and traditional at the same time. Combined with Hooper’s vision for the film, the script allows for a tremendously emotional movie with strong lyrics and a few very powerful scenes. It’s not entirely perfect, though; I didn’t like the scene where Fantine is fired from the factory and goes to become a prostitute. The musical number “Lovely Ladies,” right before “I Dreamed a Dream,” didn’t strike me as that good, and the general vibe of the scene seemed a little off to me. There were a few other musical numbers that were a little shaky, and admittedly, the singing can get a little tedious after hearing it for about one and a half hours.
I’ve never seen the Les Miserables Broadway musical, so I can’t really compare the music here to that. All I know is that I love musicals, and I really enjoyed the music in this one. The movie is really long, so there were moments where I zoned out under the torrent that was the vocals of the film, but I can’t deny that some of the songs struck real emotional chords in my shriveled, black, critic’s heart. Besides the music, the cinematography was good enough to capture the scale of the story well, and as I mentioned before, some very poetic images. And I’d be remiss to forget the makeup and hair styling that the film won an Academy Award for; both of these things help to make the film more believable, and even emotional, as you compare the conditions the destitute citizens live in against Valjean’s more privileged lifestyle.
Les Miserables surprised me in how much I enjoyed it. Yes, I had wanted to see it for a long time, but some of the buzz I heard around the time it came out tempered my expectations and my desire to see it, so it took me over two months to sit down and give it a shot. I should have listened to my gut. This is a great musical and a great movie, one that I’d recommend to fans of good music, good acting, and period dramas. It’s a long movie, and thus a little unwieldy at times, but overall I’d say it’s worth most people’s time.