It should be noted, just as I did for my review of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, that I am a huge fan of the musical Les Miserables, better known by the abbreviation “Les Mis”. Ever since I first heard it, I’ve been awaiting the day when it would brought to the big screen, just as the source material has been, several times over. In my opinion, Les Mis is one of the stages great creations, one of the best musicals ever written. Everything I say from here on in should be taken as the thoughts of someone who cannot claim to be viewing the movie through entirely unbiased eyes.
This is both a personal and an epic story. One of Les Mis’s big drawing points is the way that it mixes the intensely personal tale of Jean Valjean and Javert with the larger plot of the “June Uprising” of 1832. More than that, Les Mis skilfully interweaves several other sub-plots into this larger narrative, from the “love at first sight” of Marius and Cosette, the unrequited pining of Eponine and the villainous plots of the Thenardiers. This is the height of 19th century literature converted to a format that makes it easily accessible for everyone, with believable, well-defined characters and a good mix of serious emotional drama and black humour. This is certainly the kind of film that will make you feel all of the highs, lows, victories, defeats, loves, heartbreaks and everything else from the original stage production. Les Mis has so much to offer, that there is something for everyone within its running time.
Of course, pacing is an issue. Coming in at around 160 minutes, Les Mis doesn’t cut much from the stage musical, and suffers from the lack of an intermission after “One Day More”. Without that break it is easy to get somewhat bored at times, as you begin to really notice how long each song is or question the inclusion of varying sub-plots. No better example is the apparent finale, the final showdown of the student rebels followed by Javert’s suicide, which in most productions would signal the end of the movie. However, Les Mis keeps going for another half hour, and that is a half hour that drags. I suppose this is a situation where the director and the production team couldn’t settle on what to cut out, without seriously offending the core fanbase. For myself, I could have seen the dumping of the Eponine sub-plot and a general shortening of other things, like the build-up to the rebellion or Fantine’s time on the streets. It would have been possible to have a perfectly serviceable movie version of Les Mis without the inclusion of everything, and the pacing issues are easily the biggest flaw for me.
Hugh Jackman gives a sterling performance as reformed criminal Jean Valjean. His singing chops have been proven before, and he brought the right visual look to the character, with a somewhat softer tone of voice for the music than some might be used to, though that works. You can feel the hate emanating from him during “Work Song”, the repentance of “What Have I Done?” and “Who Am I?”, the anguish of “Bring Him Home” and the final exhaustion of “Valjean’s Death”. Valjean is a great character, the poster-boy for the redemption quest in literature, and Jackman brings him to life onscreen in a way a stage actor probably can’t. That “in-universe” setting (as opposed to the “concert” type performance that the musical usually goes with) really lays out the internal torture, offence and desperation of the Valjean character and Jackman has done himself proud here.
Russell Crowe, as noted by most reviewers, is the weak link of the cast in terms of singing ability. He certainly looks the part of Javert, the legalist policeman who can’t let Valjean go, and his acting is fine. Javert’s journey, from being absolutely certain of the laws power to killing himself when that ideology is torn to pieces, is portrayed well. I especially liked his sneer when confronted with the Thenardiers half-way through. But he really does fall flat when it comes to song. Javert, perhaps demonstrated best by the great work of Philip Quast, needs to be strong, harsh and demanding in his voice and at several points need to hold long notes. When you hear Quast sing “You know nothing of JAVERT!” we know he means business and that the inspector is a dangerous threat to Valjean. Crowe isn’t able to hold the notes or create that sense of menace and it’s a shame. He isn’t terrible by any stretch of the imagination, but when compared to the rest of the cast his inferiority is more noticeable. “Stars” and “Javert’s Suicide” are among my favourite songs of the show, so it was magnified as a flaw for me. His voice is just so soft compared to where it needs to be, compared to both better Javert’s and the rest of the cast.
Anne Hathaway shines in her all-too-brief time as Fantine. “I Dreamed A Dream” has to be good for any kind of production like this to work and she pretty much nails the sadness and desperation of that number, aided by the excellently drab surrounds she finds herself in when singing it, the lack of background music, the decision to include coughs, cries and tears. Hathaway has played this kind of part, the pretty young girl who loses everything, before and she’s very good here (though, I’d object to Oscar noms on the sheer basis of screentime). I suppose her age – a little young for Fantine – might be an issue for some, but wasn’t for me. This was an angelic performance, the showstopper, and has to be heard to be believed.
In truth, Amanda Seyfried doesn’t get much to do here as Cosette and the long running time does call attention to the fact that her musical involvement is limited. She’s really just a character for much of the cast to centre themselves around. She’s pretty and what songs she does have are performed ably, but Cosette always seemed to me as a sort of prize for Valjean and Marius to strove towards in different ways, as opposed to a fully fledged character herself.
Eddie Redmayne as Marius has gotten mixed reviews, and there are times (like during “Red and Black” for example) when his voice seems very out of kilter to what it should be. But I generally liked Redmayne as the somewhat weedy, idealistic revolutionary, who gets more than he bargained for in both the revolt and in his love for Cosette. As a love story, the Marius/Cosette arc is a little weak, though that’s down more to Cosette’s failings as a character. Redmayne performs his real key songs – “In My Life”, “A Heart Full of Love” and most crucially, the mournful “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables” – with aplomb. The romance sub-plot is traditional fare, a call-back to the more simple couplings of a by-gone age, where just a look was required to seal two lovers together.
Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter are the inspired choices for the Thenardier’s, the main villains of the piece. While you’re never left in any doubt as to their antagonist leanings, the two are also responsible for much of the movies humour, in their plots, disguises and open disdain for each other. “Master of the House” is one of the great original numbers and both do themselves proud, not just with their acceptable singing voices, but the interplay on screen between them and the customers they take great pleasure in fleecing. They are the sort of characters you just love to hate, and their greed, sarcasm and occasionally murderous intent is well on show here. They’re badly needed to lighten the mood on occasion, and their introduction comes at just the right moment.
As for the rest, Samantha Barks performs her two key Eponine songs, “On My Own” and “A Little Fall of Rain” very well, but Eponine happens to be one of my most disliked characters, thanks largely to her whining attitude and the sheer incredulity of her subplot (with Marius not seeing what is right in front of his face). Ultimately Barks doesn’t get a whole load of screentime with which to impress. Aaron Tveit, as rebel leader Enjolras, excels, taking the lead in some of the more dramatic songs and moments on screen such as “Do You Hear The People Sing?” and “Red and Black”. I thought he captured the headstrong student very well, from his opening idealism, to his misgivings as the fighting reaches its climax, to his last defiant stand. Daniel Huttlestone is as cockney as they come for Gavroache, the tragic representation of Parisian youth. Isabelle Allen as the young Cosette gives a fine rendition of “Castle on a Cloud”, and her portrait serves as an excellent poster. Colm Wilkinson, perhaps the most famed Valjean of the stage show, gets a great cameo as the Bishop of Dirgne, who sets Valjean on his road while also being there at the end of it.
The singing, in a general sense, is excellent and mixes well with the film format. The decision to not do any kind of “dubbing” for the music was a risk, but one that I think paid off, as it adds a bit of reality and immersion to the whole experience. That being said, I noticed a handful of things that did bother me about the singing. Whereas other productions focused on “hard” voices (such as hard pronunciation for example) this film version mostly chooses the soft option for most of the cast (though especially Javert). Some might also be put off by some accent changes in the switch between voice and song, the Thenardier’s being especially guilty of adding a French twang to their performances that doesn’t match up to the rest of their speech. Those are small complaints though, and overall Les Mis succeeds admirably as a musical. The actual music accompaniment is largely understated, with the director content to let his cast’s voices do most of the work, with the score just there to back them occasionally. That, in line with the lack of dubbing, adds further to the realism of the production.
It isn’t just songs that makes Les Mis though, it’s the visuals. This is a gorgeous production, all the way through, with no stone left uncovered in creating the world of “The Wretched Ones.” From the opening shot of a tattered French flag submerged in water to the final barricade sequence, Les Mis is a feast for the eyes. There are so many neat visual cues that it is hard to keep track of them all, like the barricades of the students, a nice pile up of debris, or the two ledges that Javert delivers his two key songs on. The “Lovely Ladies” set-piece is suitably horrific, the sewer scenes make the viewer want to throw up and the Thenardier’s inn is the rat’s nest we all know it to be. There’s a good mix of CGI background stuff here, along with the right measure of propwork. The costume design is fantastic, as is the make-up department. The transformation of Valjean from a scruffy, bearded convict to high society type we see him as in Paris is typical of the amount of work the background team put in.
Camera wise, some might dislike the focus on close-up shots when characters deliver solo songs. However, I somewhat appreciated that, as those moments are essentially soliloquy’s of the musical sort and the close up camera allowed the cast full opportunity to emote as they sang. The fight scenes are just a little shy of “shaky cam” though, which is not so good, with lots of fast cuts and indistinguishable action, from “The Confrontation” fight to the final assault on the barricades.
The themes of Les Miserables and the musical are well documented, and don’t bear much going over. The running comparison of Valjean and his quest for redemption, natural justice and a family is directly opposite that of Javert, the stern policeman who believes in the law and in God, absolutely. The two cannot, holding the mindsets and ideologies that they do, live in the same land together, and so it turns out, with Javert making the conscious decision to exit from “the world of Jean Valjean” when he realises that such a thing as a moral criminal can exist. The image of him planting one of his medals on the chest of the dead Gavroche might have been a bit much, but was still somewhat tear-jerking and a perfect picture to illustrate his change of heart.
Valjean’s personal journey is all about failure and his quest to make up for that. He steals from the Bishop that took him in, and then tries to use the mercy he is shown as a way of bettering himself. He stands idly by while Fantine is thrown out on the street and then pledges himself to raise her child “to the light”. He keeps Cosette isolated for fear of losing her along with his freedom, then does everything that he can to get the love of her life away from the barricades. His final sacrifice in this process is to leave Cosette to her new life, without understanding that his reward for his good deeds should be to stay with her during his last days.
Then there is the theme of uprising and revolution, tying into the idea of justice and “fighting the power”. The students of the ABC Club led an ill-fated rebellion (brilliantly illustrated by a sky shot of their isolated position, surrounded by soldiers). Valjean hits out at the law system which he considers monstrously unjust (and it is). Javert does everything in his power to bring Valjean, the Thenardier’s and the rebels to justice.
This theme has also much to do with the conflict between idealism and realism. The rebels believe absolutely in the righteousness of their cause and that “the people” will join them “when we call”. As the fighting continues, this is proven to be false, and the people go as far as leaving the rebels to die when it comes to it. Enjolras embodies the idealistic vision of the June Uprising, but that doesn’t make him any less dead at the end. The power and pragmatism of the state – the realism represented by Javert – triumphs in this battle, though perhaps the whole point of the production is that it is a pyrrhic victory, that tears the victors souls apart and only delays the inevitable triumph of “the people” (as represented in the finale).
For final thoughts, I can only say that Les Mis, in cinemas, is an emotive and satisfying experience. Musicals need the same elements of success as any other film in order to work and I think Les Mis has them. With such a completionist attitude, this is a production for fans of the musical and while it will hook others in, plenty will be turned off by the long running time and the mediocre performance of Crowe. However, speaking as someone who loves the musical, I can still call this film a triumph, a wonderful adaptation of the source material that transfers all of the heart, excitement and enthralling action of the musical to the big screen. Fully recommended.
(All pictures are copyright of Universal Pictures.)