Watching “Les Miserables”
I didn’t want to see “Les Miserables.” But then I saw the preview for the film, and I remembered something I had long forgotten: I like “Les Miserables.” Or at least I did when I was 15, and the high school band and chorus traveled to New York City to see it on Broadway. I remember playing my “Les Miz” tape constantly, and even playing some of the music on the piano. That tape is now buried in a box in the hall closet, and the piano music remains at my parents’ house. But it’s safe to say that I have some lingering affection for “Les Miserables.”
That lingering affection helped carry me through the film version’s rougher patches. “Les Miserables” is a long movie, with some misguided stylistic touches, but it’s well-performed, and the novelty of hearing famous actors such as Hugh Jackman and Anne Hathaway and Russell Crowe sing almost all of their lines never wears out its welcome.
Adapted from a Victor Hugo novel, “Les Miserables” tells the epic story of Jean Valjean (Jackman), who is sentenced to 19 years in prison for stealing a loaf of bread, breaks parole, takes on a new name and becomes a respected mayor and factory owner. He is pursued relentlessly by Inspector Javert (Crowe), a humorless law and order type, and his cover is blown when he rescues a prostitute, Fantine (Hathaway), and agrees to care for her young daughter Cosette (Isabelle Allen). The story then jumps forward 10 years. Cosette (now played by Amanda Seyfried) and Valjean live under assumed names, trying to keep one step ahead of the dogged Javert. France has also changed, and we meet a group of young men, and a boy named Gavroche (Daniel Huttlestone), who are preparing for revolution. One of the young men, Marius (Eddie Redmayne), falls in love with Cosette.
Director Tom Hooper, who won a best directing Oscar for “The King’s Speech,” takes this material very seriously, and his film is a Big Emotional Experience, designed to make you feel like you want to stand up and sing “Do You Hear the People Sing?” right along with the cast. I was fine with this, and I thoroughly enjoyed following the story’s twists and turns, and humming along to the music, and having my heart ripped out again and again. Hooper presents 18th century France as a cruel, violent and grimy place, which is the right decision, although I kept wishing Fantine and Cosette had been allowed to take at least one bath, and he has a showman’s knack for staging spectacular set pieces.
But Hooper also made the unfortunate decision to impose an unnecessary and overly artsy directorial sensibility on “Les Miserables.” He films the actors in extreme close-up, for no apparent reason, and at strange angles, for no apparent reason, and employs a distracting shaky-camera technique that seems better suited to the found footage horror genre. I asked my friend Hanna what might have possessed Hooper to make these bizarre stylistic choices, and she replied, “No clue, but they made my mother carsick.” Frankly, there’s no excuse for this — “Les Miserables” is not “Cloverfield,” or “The Blair Witch Project.” It’s a pop opera, and it shouldn’t make you feel carsick.
What saves “Les Miserables” from itself is the cast, which is uniformly excellent. I even liked Russell Crowe, who has been criticized for seeming stiff and uncomfortable — I felt that his voice was a bit weak, but that he brought unexpected notes of tenderness to Javert, who is ultimately a tragic figure. Hathaway is very good, and will probably win the Oscar for best supporting actress, because the Academy likes to reward women for taking on roles that involve suffering. But “Les Miserables” is, at heart, Jackman’s film, and he does a great job of playing a thief who becomes an honorable man, and showing how the years, and his desire to live a good and normal life, slowly wear on him.
I’d forgotten that the second half of “Les Miz” revolves around Cosette and Marius, who are the least interesting characters in the story. Redmayne and Seyfried are perfectly fine, but their love story is pretty boring and drippy, and detracts from the most compelling parts of the musical: Valjean’s cat-and-mouse game with Javert, and the unsuccessful 1832 Paris Uprising, in which SPOILER ALERT! DO NOT READ ANY FURTHER IF YOU DO NOT WANT TO KNOW WHAT HAPPENS! all of the student revolutionaries except Marius are killed, as well as Gavroche. (The death of Gavroche was the saddest moment of the movie for me, while Javert’s tender moment with his corpse was the most moving.)
After so much death, I had a hard time caring whether Cosette and Marius got to spend the rest of their lives happily ever after, and I found the closing scene, where the citizens of Paris, along with Gavroche, the dead students, Fantine and Valjean appear on a giant barricade, singing, just a bit hard to take — an attempt to graft a happy ending onto a tragic, bloody story. But that is the story, for better or worse, and for the most part Hooper does it justice. He has created a movie that both satisfied and exhausted my 15-year-old inner band geek, and I’m glad I saw it.
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