I never really had much of an interest in seeing LES MISERABLES during its run on Broadway back when I lived up in the Tri-State area. There just was never anything about it that grabbed me, as I usually opted for different musicals every time the option to take in LES MIZ presented itself. Therefore, heading into Tom Hooper’s film adaptation of the material, I had no baggage whatsoever with the stage show, its music or its characters. This would be my first exposure to the musical that so many have sweared by to me over the years. “You have to see it. It’s such an amazing show.” Well, I can’t speak for the performances of Alain Boublil, Claude-Michel Schonberg and Herbert Kretzmer’s show on a nightly basis having no idea just how well that translated to the big screen, but if it was anything even remotely close to Hooper’s movie, I have no idea how the hell this show managed to stay popular on any level for over 25 years, because at least half of LES MIZ is a dreadful production. And look… I’m not one to harp on a film’s running time. It’s as long as it is, so long as that time is used wisely to tell a compelling story, and not a bloated piece of cinema that’s overstaying its welcome or in bad need of an edit that would have made for a better and leaner cut. However, when you’re clocking in at around 160 minutes, and putting forth a story that actually feels as if it’s taking twice as long to tell, you know you’ve got a problem. Seriously… sitting in the theatre enduring LES MISERABLES felt like it was taking up my entire day… and not one of those good ones where you actually enjoy whatever you were doing. This is more in line with one of those picking out wallpaper all afternoon deals. Yeah, it’s not pretty.
LES MISERABLES tells the story of Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman, who is more than capable in carrying a tune), a Frenchman who is finally being paroled after serving 19 years in prison for stealing bread. However he’s been marked a dangerous man by Javert (Russell Crowe, who has trouble with his own musical prowess), the unmerciful police inspector who is right by the book in his enforcement of the law. Justice is the only standard he lives by, and he holds a deep resentment for those who cannot live their life by the rules society has set. Can’t eat? Too bad. Work harder. After being saved so to speak by the local Bishop, Valjean elects to turn over a new leaf with his life, aiming to help those in need, much like what was done for him. However, he also chooses to break his parole as well, which means Javert will be coming for him at every turn from now until the day he dies or he’s back in prison, whichever comes first, setting off a bit of a tiresome chase through many locations in France and spanning plenty of years of Javert intently trying to get his man. It is an interesting dichotomy between the two characters to have the dutiful Javert unable to show any sort of mercy or forgiveness towards his target for his past sins, even as he’s changed his life for the world’s better. However, there is really only so much story that can be taken from this, and that’s where the weakness of LES MISERABLES really starts to show… in stretching these arcs over far too long, rendering them ineffective by the end of the film. When it finally comes time for Valjean and Javert’s relationship/rivalry to come to a head, you don’t care too much any more… although it would have been nice for them to wrap up a thread about 45 minutes earlier, before you started to zone out, thinking of all the things you could have accomplished if you weren’t still stuck in this theatre seat.
Conversely, the story involving Anne Hathaway’s Fantine is far too short. A factory worker let go from her job at the hands of her overdramatic women co-workers, Fantine is forced into selling off everything she has, including her hair and teeth, and eventually turning to prostitution, in order to support the illegitimate daughter she’s raising alone. In such a limited time on-screen, you feel the painful struggle that Fantine is living in just trying to provide for her child, with no one looking out for her benefit until it’s much too late. However, it’s during her powerfully emotional song “I Dreamed A Dream” that you begin to take notice of a bold choice director Tom Hooper makes for filming these numbers. When it comes to songs like Jackman’s “What Have I Done?” or “I Dreamed A Dream” or later Samantha Banks’ “On My Own,” which blows you away in the otherwise forgettable second act, Hooper elects to shoot his performers mostly in close-up and with few, if any, cuts to the film. Such a decision locks you in on the strong feelings being conveyed by the performers, without any distractions being thrown in by camera angles or perspective changes. This is what the character is feeling in its rawest form, and he is not going to let you turn away from it. It’s during these sequences that I found myself most engaged by LES MIZ, gripped by the emotions of these character’s situations. Sadly, those moments seemed to be few and far between, outside of these choice numbers. I also found myself at least entertained by Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter’s duet on “Master of the House”, as their low-life scamming partnership injects the film with some much-needed light humor in the midst of an otherwise extremely serious tone.
At the heart of Valjean’s moral turnaround is Cosette (the somewhat boring Amanda Seyfried), Fantine’s daughter who he swore he’d look after. He now has a responsibility to take care of, adding another complicated ripple to the Valjean-Javert dynamic. But there’s not enough worthwhile for Seyfried to do in the role, as Cosette is literally dragged around from one location to the next as Valjean is constantly looking over his shoulder, paranoid as to when he may encounter his hunter once more. It isn’t until she gets a love story in what would amount to Act II of the stage show that she becomes more than a prop, and, by then, the last thing you want is a whole heap of new characters thrown at you, who you’re suddenly supposed to care about. Perhaps the film may have benefitted from a 20 minute intermission to help set up this time jump that takes place in the middle of the movie, as it would also allow you to just get up and stretch your legs… but that’d also mean spending more time with LES MISERABLES, which is hardly an appealing prospect.
LES MISERABLES is quite a mess, both simple and complex in all the wrong places, making for a story stuffed with extraneous story threads and characters, when a streamlined approach really could have benefitted the production as a whole. There’s often too much going on with characters you’ve been no reason at all to connect to, and, with the ones you haven’t been given an opportunity to get to know, there’s not much deviation from the same old, same old. Hooper, whose last effort was the good but highly overrated THE KING’S SPEECH is absolutely over his head with his inability to wrangle this material into something coherent, making for an endless trip back to Revolution-era France that only seems to get longer the more time you spend with it.
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