Image source. Copyright Universal Pictures, 2012.
By most standards of “good moviemaking,” Tom Hooper’s 2012 adaptation of the hit Broadway musical should be a total flop. The acting is uneven, the length an eyesore, and as CinemaSins has effectively pointed out, the live singing flawed. Yet you just can’t bring yourself to dislike Les Mis. Who can say no to such a sweeping story, such rousing music, such pure, soaring sacrifice? Even when it stumbles, this hulking melodrama will leave you with a tear in your eye.
For those who have no idea why Les Mis conjures up such strong feelings among avid fans and are not ready, like one of my old roommates, to dismiss the entire thing out of hand as “pretentious French junk,” Les Mis is the rags-to-riches story of Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) in 19th-century France. Imprisoned for stealing a loaf of bread, Valjean, a.k.a. Prisoner No. 24601, is released on parole by the heartless police inspector Javert (Russell Crowe). “Follow to the letter your itinerary,” proclaims Javert to Valjean, thrusting him identification papers that brand Valjean “extrêmement dangereux.” “This badge of shame you’ll wear until you die.” In your dreams, inspector. Valjean finds solace in the church of a selfless bishop (Colm Wilkinson) and, after several years in the spiritual woods, reinvents himself as the well-dressed mayor of Montreuil. He’s a pretty good mayor, always trying to give the poor and needy a hand. Life’s fine and peaceful…until a few things come barging in. First, Javert, who’s been hunting Valjean for years like a bloodhound. Next, Fantine (Anne Hathaway), a woman forced into prostitution to pay for the care of her daughter Cosette (Isabelle Allen/Amanda Seyfried). Fantine dies in Valjean’s arms entreating him to find and raise Cosette on his own. And oh, let’s not forget the group of super-idealistic student revolutionaries – Marius (Eddie Redmayne), Enjolras (Aaron Tveit), Gavroche (Daniel Huttlestone) and co. – who throw all of Paris into a storm because they want to singlehandedly bring down the monarchy. Really, as a drunk Grantaire (George Blagden) proclaims, the whole thing “is better than an o-pe-ra!”
Even in its musical form, Les Mis really covers all its bases with the human condition. Everybody, from the desperate poor to the ostentatious rich to the selfless outsiders, gets his or her due here. That’s the best part of Les Mis: its uncanny ability to be opulent and intimate all at once. For diehard lovers of the musical or original novel (probably more the former than the latter, since nobody reads 1000-page books anymore), this movie will be like recollecting the memories of your long-lost childhood. For everyone else, 158 minutes of songs, songs, and more songs, with almost no breaks, can get a little tiring. Just when you’ve absorbed a musical number you think is great, along comes another. By the end, you might struggle to remember most of these songs clearly, when on their own they each might have been far more memorable.
But never mind the cumulative effect of all the singing for now. In the moment, is each bit of music and drama worth it? Alas, not always. Not all the actors are particularly good at singing. Cough cough, Russell Crowe. With his stern, unmoving expression, Crowe initially looks fit for the role. Then he opens his mouth. I’m no singing expert, but singing so flat and unadorned just can’t be quality music. Also, cough cough, Amanda Seyfried. Her squeaky, squeaky, squeaky high voice makes you want to buy some earplugs. Aside from the music, sometimes the drama itself also definitely goes too far. Count me a cynic for thinking “love at first sight” isn’t possible, but Cosette and Marius fall in love and marry…all based on one glance at each other in a crowded marketplace, then one brief meeting in a garden where they basically only learn each other’s names. What was in the letter Cosette ends up writing to Marius right after? “I LOVE YOU” in 72-point font?
Yet when the going gets good, it gets good. The positives in this movie, instead of being bogged down by the fair number of negatives, somehow still manage to carry the day. Anne Hathaway as Fantine, Hugh Jackman as Valjean and Samanatha Barks as Eponine, the girl who likes Marius but gets no love in return, are standouts. And when the most well-known numbers do start up – “I Dreamed a Dream,” “One Day More,” the finale – there’s no way you won’t find yourself singing along. If Les Mis weren’t such a beloved musical in the first place, this movie adaptation would be a disaster. But it’s because of Les Mis’ all-too-familiar charms that we end up loving this movie, shortcomings and all.
Les Mis is no Singin’ in the Rain. It’s too heavily loaded with excessive noise, over-the-top acting, and in certain places, subpar singing. Yet in its best parts, it boldly displays its great, beating heart and dares you to come along. It’s a guilty-pleasure movie that, with the help of good acting in certain quarters and a few memorable numbers, becomes satisfactory in its own right. We’ll never be able to stop singing the songs of angry men.
Les Misérables (2012)
Starring: Hugh Jackman, Anne Hathaway, Russell Crowe, Amanda Seyfried, Eddie Redmayne, Samantha Barks, Sacha Baron Cohen, Helena Bonham Carter
Running Time: 158 minutes
Produced by: Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner, Debra Hayward, Cameron Mackintosh
Directed by: Tom Hooper
Written by: William Nicholson, Alain Boublil, Claude-Michel Schonberg, Herbert Kretzmer
Based on Boublil and Schonberg’s Broadway musical of the same name, which is based on the 1862 Victor Hugo novel of the same name.