(by Dustin Putman
Based on the 1862 novel by Victor Hugo, "Les Misérables" was adapted in Paris as a 1980 stage musical by Claude-Michel Schonberg, Alain Boubil and Herbert Kretzmer. Urged by its success, the production moved to England in 1985, and then to Broadway in 1987, where it earned eight Tony Award wins. Sixteen years and 6,680 performances later, the musical finally shuttered, at the time becoming the second-longest production (after "Cats") to ever hit New York City. A veritable smash hit that led to a 2006-2008 revival on the Great White Way, "Les Misérables" has become a mainstay of musical theatre, constantly touring the United States and racking up big sales wherever it goes. With this kind of popularity, it was only a matter of time before Hollywood decided to mount a big-screen version. Coming through and making it happen were Universal Pictures, director Tom Hooper (2010's "The King's Speech"), and writer William Nicholson (2000's "Gladiator"), in essence tweaking ever so slightly the structure and soundtrack to fit the cinematic composition. In a risky but exciting decision, Hooper opted to shoot all of his actors singing live rather than lip-synching to pre-recorded playback, thus increasing the immediacy and authenticity of their performances. In this regard, the gamble paid off, with certain actors never better than they are right here. In addition, this rendering is as bold and lavish as a long-time fan could possibly expect; there are some scenes that are truly eye-popping in their breadth and feeling. Article continues below
Alas, with the good comes a whole heap of disappointments, and "Les Misérables" in motion picture form only serves to magnify the various structural, developmental and narrative issues that have always plagued the show on stage. Whereas one can more easily forgive its uneven, two-dimensional characters and leaps in logic when faced with live actors warbling magnificently through an excellent score, the film gives the viewer a lot more downtime to consider all the things that should be working, but aren't. It does not help that the opening half-hour is as powerful as things get; past this point, the experience becomes strained, grows meandering, turns more than a little dull, and remarkably lacks in emotional oomph. The actors give it their all, but they, too, are at the mercy of a rigid script that, with one crucial exception, allows for no breathing room as they try to break free from the shackles of the source material. Sadly, for a musical that should, at heart, be about an ex-convict struggling to move on with his life and his relationship with the adopted daughter he agrees to raise, there is precious little time spent between these two characters. Everything else—including the shaggiest love triangle this side of "One Life to Live"—gets in the way.
For nineteen years, Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) has toiled away in Toulon, France's Bagne prison, circa the early nineteenth century, doing time for a loaf of bread he once stole. Following his parole—and inspired by the kindness of a bishop who offers him food and shelter when he needs it most—Valjean sets out to redeem himself, taking on the new identity of Monsieur Madeleine, a mayor and factory owner. Just as lowly factory worker Fantine (Anne Hathaway) is fired when it is discovered she has an illegitimate child, sending her on a humiliating path of self-destruction as she struggles to make ends meet, Valjean is recognized by police inspector Javert (Russell Crowe). Looking to make amends for not coming to a now-deathly ill Fantine's rescue earlier, Valjean promises to care for daughter Cosette (Isabelle Allen), saving her from the clutches of married thieves and guardians, the Thénardiers (Sacha Baron Cohen, Helena Bonham Carter). Meanwhile, Javert makes it his life's mission to once more imprison Valjean—a pursuit that lasts over ten years, taking them directly into the midst of the Paris Uprising of 1832.
No prestigious $60-million-plus screen adaptation of a world-renowned stage musical has any business leaving the viewer cold, and yet that is strangely what "Les Misérables" does. The trailers, featuring Anne Hathaway's devastating rendition of "I Dreamed a Dream" placed over a montage of resplendent images, was enough to give a viewer chills and bring a few tears to one's eyes in the span of just a minute or two. The 157-minute film proper cumulatively doesn't come close to this. As previously mentioned, it is Fantine's woeful story that plucks at one's heartstrings, made all the more vital by rearranging the song tracks and placing "I Dreamed a Dream" later in the proceedings, after she has shaved her hair, given away teeth, and prostituted herself for a little money to provide for Cosette. All that leads up to this moment is wretchedly absorbing, but "I Dreamed a Dream," filmed in a single startling take, is the payoff, sealing the deal on Anne Hathaway's (2012's "The Dark Knight Rises") destined Oscar win in roughly three minutes' time. Simply put, it is one of the most pure, heartrending performances of a musical number ever committed to celluloid.
The remaining two hours or so of "Les Misérables" do not come close to matching the section with Hathaway's Fantine. Once she is out of the picture and a ragtag ensemble of new actors take over as the time races forward ten years, the film slowly but surely self-destructs. Valjean and a now-grown Cosette share a brief lyrical exchange, but their relationship remains frustratingly unformed and surface-ready when it should be the beating heart that all else circles. Meanwhile, Javert's continued vow to recapture Valjean, particularly during "Stars," only makes him look like a sad, lonely man with literally nothing to preoccupy his time but obsess upon Valjean. Such an arc works to a certain extent on stage, but its seams show more glaringly on film and this entire part of the plot becomes far-fetched and even silly. And then there is the soppy three-sided romance between Marius (Eddie Redmayne), who falls head over heels for Cosette based solely on how pretty he thinks she looks from afar, much to the chagrin of the Thénardiers' own daughter, Éponine (Samantha Barks), whose feelings for him are not reciprocated. None of this is convincing, not even as Éponine, who has chosen to dress as a boy and join the revolution, sings the lovely ballad, "On My Own." If there were any weight at all to the relationship or quandary she sings about, it would be a potent turning point in the show; as is, it's another afterthought. The same could be said of the ongoing battles in the street, placing Éponine, Marius, and plucky young Gavroche (Daniel Huttlestone) in immediate danger. By failing to inject any type of historical value or importance to the Paris Uprising of 1832—one only knows it's this by doing research—it becomes just another fancy, weightless detail to hang the rambling, overstuffed plot upon.
One area where great care has clearly gone to is in the casting of each prominent role, the prerequisites seeming to be that the actor know not only how to act, but emote properly while belting out songs. Since the music is performed live on set, it was furthermore important that the cast be trained well enough to withstand the physical, vocal and emotional demands of the project. Anne Hathaway is in some supernatural master class of her own, but she is followed closely by Hugh Jackman (2011's "Real Steel"), powerfully holding his own throughout as Jean Valjean. Russell Crowe (2010's "Robin Hood") has a tougher time with a tougher character, Javert, his voice sounding more suitable for rock 'n' roll—he has his own longtime band, 30 Odd Foot of Grunts—than an operatic classical musical. Truth be told, there are times when Crowe's notes go noticeably flat, though it's not for a lack of trying. Sacha Baron Cohen (2012's "The Dictator") and Helena Bonham Carter (2012's "Dark Shadows") as Monsieur and Madame Thénardier have both proven their musical worth with 2007's outstanding "Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street," and are more than welcome here as the sole comic relief in a work that would otherwise be unbearably morose. Their big duet, "Master of the House," is deliciously quirky and fun. Finally, as the three teenage souls with overactive hearts, Eddie Redmayne (2011's "My Week with Marilyn") as Marius, Amanda Seyfried (2011's "In Time") as Cosette, and newcomer Samantha Barks (who previously played Éponine in the stage production) have reliable voices, but aren't ask to do much more than hold a note. Victims of a negligible script, they are playing symbolic types, not layered flesh-and-blood characters, and in Seyfried's case, missing in action for such long stretches one nearly forgets she's in the film at all until she pops up again at the end. Director Tom Hooper, picking up where the play's flaws leave off, has a difficult time juggling all his on-screen participants and ensuring that they come alive as they ought to.
It isn't hard to see why "Les Misérables" has endured and even increased in popularity through the years—in its best moments, the music positively soars—but it is surprising that not more people have called it out for its weaknesses, of which there are many. Javert's puruit of Valjean is a non-starter, leading to a conclusion with Javert that only cements what a narrow, one-note creation he is. After making a few mistakes early on, Jean Valjean is transformed into a sexless martyr, on hand only to serve his personal cause for redemption, and then die. Marius and Éponine are hanger-ons to Cosette, who, as far as can be told, has absolutely nothing going for her other than her beauty. Her father-daughter relationship with Valjean is haphazardly undernourished, and no amount of pleading and weeping in the final moments can turn around what a botch job this aspect of the story is. In the end, "Les Misérables" will divide audiences, and not only between those who enjoy and are open-minded to sung-through musicals and those that can't stand them. This writer eats up the genre, and yet this particular adaptation, as handsomely mounted and inspiringly cast as it is, feels stuffy and too proper by a half, director Tom Hooper's desire to adhere to the source so strong that he has strangled the vitality and raw vigor clear out of the proceedings. Instead of cheering and wiping away tears at the end, it leaves one deflated as he or she ponders the ways this translation has gone wrong.