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Les Misérables Not too Shabby: Review

Contributor:
Samantha Lee
Samantha Lee

This bloody movie. People have been full of opinions on Les Misérables since the movie came out, and even more so since it became a Golden Globe winner in three categories and Academy Award contender.

“Hugh Jackman was better as Wolverine” vs “Hugh Jackman’s Broadway background makes him perfect for this movie.” “Russell Crowe? He can sing?” “I heard they made the cast sing live when filming. Huge. Mistake.” “Anne Hathaway cut off her hair and lost scary amounts of weight for this, what, is she method, now?”

My recommendation? Don’t go with any preconceived notions. This is Tom Hooper’s interpretation of what Les Misérables is; see it before you judge it. And for those like me who were anxious about saying the name of the movie to other people, it’s pronounced “Lay Mee-say-hrabl.”

Les Misérables is the story of ex-con Jean Valjean (Jackman), who broke parole after being imprisoned for 19 years for stealing a loaf of bread (it’s 19th century France, it’s believable.) Jean Valjean is pursued by policeman Javert (Crowe) as he works to better his circumstances and becomes involved in the activities of a group of revolutionaries.

Based on the novel by Victor Hugo Les Misérables features notable performances by actors who are clearly well-versed in their craft.

Jackman, who needs to carry the film from start to finish, does a remarkable job of holding the tone and emotion of his character. Valjean is a man wronged by a justice system that benefits the rich and strong and cares nothing for the poor and disenfranchised. A man who, having found moral conviction strives to keeps connected to the values he has discovered. Jackman’s sense of overwhelming and unjustified oppression is portrayed clearly through the film – his Oscar nomination and Globe win are well deserved.

Crowe, I’m on the fence with. He has a good singing voice and while I’m genuinely confused as to whether he can act or “acts at acting” he pulls off a performance that has everyone else confused as well, from the mixed reviews. On the one hand his performance as morally-upright, anal-retentive, not-to-be-moved Jalvert is convincing, and like Jackman he sticks to his convictions for the majority of the movie. What I’m having trouble with is the execution of the grand climax for Jalvert. He’s a threatening, fearsome entity throughout the entire movie and represents the oppression that all the characters are fighting against, until an act of Valjean’s causes him to question himself. That huge struggle between what has always been his guiding force, his “spine” and the decision to accept or reject a new path didn’t quite come across, and I can’t decide if that’s Crowe’s, Hooper’s or Hugo’s fault. Watch it, and tell me.

Hathaway, who in my opinion is on her way to being the Judi Dench or Maggie Smith of her generation, is stunning. If you go to see this movie for no other reason, go to see her. Her portrayal of Fantine, for which she cut off her hair live on camera and lost 11 kg, is one of the finest things I’ve seen in cinema. You could have heard a pin drop in our theatre after she finished singing “I Dreamed a Dream” – trust me, you do not want to miss this. I have great faith in the power of cinema to move us, to make us respond viscerally- Hathaway did so in this movie. If she doesn’t get the Best Supporting Actress Oscar I’ll be very sad, and by the critical response to Hathaway’s scenes in Les Misérables I won’t be alone.

Other notable performances include the always-on-point Helena Bonham Carter as Madame Thénardier, and a surprise “like” for me, Sacha Baron Cohen as her husband – generally I find him to be OTT but his hilarious “Master of the House” song was right on the money. Samantha Barks turned out a fine performance as Éponine and her performance of "On My Own" was beautifully delivered. The truly well-shot and performed ensemble pieces like “Do You Hear the People Sing?” were high points as well.

Where this film falls down for me, having never seen this performed on stage, read the book or seen an alternative movie version, is the singing. This film strikes me more as drama-with-singing rather than singing-with-drama, which is what I find most musicals to be. This meant that although the live singing came across beautifully in Jackman’s finding-God moment, Barks’ last scene and in Hathaway’s pièce de résistance, at times and for other characters this came across as too raw, too confronting, and by the end – a bit much. This is particularly evident in some of Jackman’s final scenes – by the end, I wasn’t as enthralled as I wanted to be because I was over the pained, emotional and too-often singing. I felt hit over the head with the songs, rather than engaged with the storyline. Again not having seen other versions I can’t say if Les Misérables is normally like this, in which case not really Jackman’s or Hooper’s fault.

While the casting of Amanda Seyfried and Eddie Redmayne as the Romeo-and-Juliet-esque Cosette and Marius was spot on, as both depict wide-eyed first love and naiveté well and both (particularly Seyfried) can carry a tune, I found their love story mostly annoying. May have been just me, but I wasn’t on board with the love-at-first-sight, this-is-what-we’re-fighting-and-dying-for thing, and quite frankly was on Éponine’s side the entire time.

All and all, Les Misérables has some soaring, heart-wrenching, wondrous moments. It does fall down in spots, and it's top of everyone's 'To Have An Opinion On' list - all in all this is a definite must-see for 2013.

 

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