Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Movie – Les Miserables (2012)

You should know that this review of Les Miserables is coming from the perspective of someone who has never seen the stage musical.  While I did read the book, it was many years ago and I only remembered a few basics of the story.  This means I should have been coming in relatively new to the entire thing.  Unfortunately, Anne Hathaway spoiled the fates of four of the five major characters for me by relating a filming story on The Daily Show, and then when I later looked at the soundtrack for the film there right in the titles of some of the songs are massive spoilers for what happens in the movie.  Knowing what was going to happen in the film obviously reduced its impact on me, but I still felt the film was worthy of recommending.

Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) is a man imprisoned for nineteen years in early 1800s France for stealing a loaf of bread, then for repeated escape attempts.  He is released, but breaks parole because no one will give him lodging or a job because he is a former prisoner.  He tries to steal silver from a church, but the priest tells him to take it and change his life with it.  He does.  The film skips several years and he is a successful businessman and mayor.  Inspector Javert (Russell Crowe) has been after him ever since Valjean skipped parole.  Javert is relentless in his pursuit.  Essentially he is literature’s first Terminator.  Guess who gets assigned to be the chief of police in Valjean’s town?  Javert doesn’t recognize him at first, though.

Meanwhile, a factory worker of Valjean’s named Fantine (Anne Hathaway) gets fired from her job for being an unwed mother.  She quickly descends to selling her hair, teeth, then body as she becomes a prostitute, all in order to try to pay for her daughter Cosette’s (blue eyed Isabelle Allen) lodging with two innkeepers (Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter).  Both Javert and Valjean see Fantine accosted by a john and have different reactions.  Javert’s is to arrest her, while Valjean’s is to help her.  Once he finds out she was fired from his factory, and has a daughter she is supporting, he vows to make sure her daughter is taken care of.  His identity gets revealed to Javert at this time and he has to make haste to get Cosette and himself to safety.

Eight more years pass and Valjean is now living in Paris with Cosette (now played by green eyed Amanda Seyfried).  Javert is also back in Paris, as are pretty much everyone else we have met in the movie that is still alive.  Cosette catches the eye of a young revolutionary named Marius (Eddie Redmayne) and the attraction is mutual.  Marius asks his friend Eponine (Samantha Banks) to find the girl for him.  Unbeknownst to him, Eponine is both in love with him and is the now grown daughter of the innkeepers who had Cosette as a child.  In the midst of all of this the people in the streets are near to boiling over and Javert is still pursuing Valjean.

I should state that I am not one of those people who hate musicals for being, well, musicals.  In fact, I often like musicals.  A key condition of this is I have to like the songs, though.  Unfortunately, there were so many songs in Les Miserables that frankly were just not that memorable for me that somewhere approaching the two hour mark (the film is over 2 ½ hours long) I started to get fed up with them.  Yes, I Dreamed a Dream and On My Own were memorable songs, and there were a couple of crowd-sung songs that I liked, but that was about it. 

Perhaps other songs had more impact in the stage presentation with the performers really singing out, but in the movie most of the performances are done in a quiet, little self-reflective way.  Director Tom Hooper had everyone sing live in order to enhance their ability to act in a scene while singing.  I agree that this did make the acting better, but at the same time I felt it made the songs have less impact.  It seemed like Hooper was counting on people already being very familiar with the stage musical and songs because I often had trouble making out some lyrics where the person singing was choking back tears or anguish.

Yes, that’s right.  If you couldn’t tell from the description above, it is not a happy movie.  In fact, the theme for the film can very succinctly be stated as “life sucks, then you die”.  It can be a challenge to combine depressing scenes with people singing songs and I feel that the film was only partially successful at accomplishing this.  The one song that really felt out of place was a bouncy little ditty sung by the two innkeepers while they stole things from their customers.  It is obviously intended to try to lighten up things after so much dreariness to that point, but for me it just did not work.  As the old joke goes, it went over about as well as a fart in church.

The movie felt longer than its 2 ½ hour plus running time.  I feel that 3-4 of the blander songs could easily have been left out and the movie would have been the better for it.  The two big songs both had their impacts, though.  And I am now going to be inconsistent in that I am going to say the movie should have added more buildup with Hathaway’s character before her downfall.  When she sings her big I Dreamed a Dream song it is emotional, but it didn’t have a full impact on me because I hadn’t even had time to get to know her character.  It had to have been less than 15 minutes of screen time with Hathaway, with only enough time to learn that she is trying to support a daughter – who we have not seen yet – before she reaches this point.  They should have shown at least one scene with her and her daughter together.  Even though it would have made the film a little longer, I feel it would have made it better.

In fact, the other big song – On My Own – had a bigger emotional impact on me when Eponine sings it precisely because I had had time to get to know her some.  We had seen her pining for Marius, struggling with her conscience about passing a message from Cosette on to him or keeping it hidden, and deciding that his happiness, even if it’s with another woman, is more important than her own happiness.  We also know she had really crappy parents, so a hoped for life with this man would have been a beacon of possible happiness in the drudgery of her life.  By the time she sings it, you can really understand where she is coming from.

In regards to the acting, Hathaway is the odds-on favorite to win Best Supporting Actress at the Oscars.  Jackman was nominated for Best Actor, but he’s more of a long shot.  Both lost considerable weight to portray starving characters.  I actually felt that Crowe did a better job with his acting in the movie than Jackman did.  I’ve read some carping about Crowe’s singing, but I didn’t have a problem with it.  I did have a bit of a problem with the fact that Hooper had the performers caught halfway between this being a musical with dialogue and occasional songs, and an opera where all dialogue is sung.  Instead, they were in a weird limbo area where they would speak a sentence or two, then sing a sentence, or sometimes ever start a sentence talking and end it singing.  If they had committed to one way or the other I felt it would have worked better.  I’m now not surprised that Hooper was on the outside looking in when the Best Director nominations were announced.

Despite my having the ending spoiled for me, and despite the movie feeling like it dragged in sections, the big ending was still a hugely emotional scene.  Don’t worry; I won’t be spoiling it for those who do not know what happens.  A powerful ending can do a lot for me in restoring the good graces of a film and this one was no exception.  While I didn’t hate the film up to that point, I didn’t particularly love it, either.  The ending saved it and made it a film I would recommend.  If this movie sounds interesting then you should give it a try.

Chip’s Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

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  1. Good point about Fantine not getting enough build-up. Her very short story arc is more like a little vertically descending line of things getting progressively, and rapidly, worse, and it would definitely have been better to have seen more of her before she got fired.

    1. Thanks. Maybe the stage musical does this, but they cut it out to shorten the movie.

  2. Good review Chip. I really liked this flick because it reminded me of the type of power and emotion a musical can build over time, if it is done right. This is what happens when a musical is done right.

    1. Thanks. I'd pick other musicals over this one, but when parts of it do work they work very well.

  3. I agree there should be more opportunities to get to know Fantine, she was just so forgettable to me and as sad as her song was I really feel the Oscar for Hathaway will be completely undeserved. I liked Crowe's acting, his singing wasn't the best but he did a good job in other moments. The film was too long and annoyed me, I agree the songs weren't memorable. Plus the whole thing was shot in such a bizarre way it gave me a headache.

  4. I'm with you on everything except the last sentence. I'm pretty sensitive to shakycam ruining a movie for me, but I don't remember anything bad in this. What do you mean by bizarre?