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Review: Les Misérables (2012)

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Les Misérables
2012 155 minutes Rated PG-13

The harshest thing I can say about Tom Hooper's Les Misérables (teaser/trailer) is that I can only imagine those who have not seen the original show wondering what the fuss has been all about.  The film is painfully faithful, but film is a wholly different medium than live theater and the translation doesn't quite work.  The picture is full of fine performances, almost too good in fact. The film's much-discussed live on-set singing pretty much works, but it only yields inherently different results in a few occasions.  But still, the overall production feels akin to seeing the show for the first time, and that's not a good thing.  What perhaps felt epic on stage comes off onscreen like a rushed and overstuffed story with occasionally inexplicable narrative choices and occasionally misplaced character emphasis.  It comes off feeling less like one of the great epics of Broadway and more like a simplified and audience-pleasing version of the original Victor Hugo novel.

I'm going to assume most of you know the basic story, many of you have probably seen the show and/or have the soundtrack on CD.  Director Tom Hooper is arguably trying something intriguing here, attempting to craft a gritty and intimate period piece where characters just happen to basically sing the entire narrative.  This works, more or less, for the first third of the film, when the story is relatively simple and confined to a few major characters.  The initial moral struggles of Jean Valjean (a superb Hugh Jackman) and Fantine (an equally superb Anne Hathaway) are engaging contrasted with the rigid and seemingly unbending Inspector Javert (Russell Crowe, bravely going full-bore musical even as many of his cast-mates periodically merely 'talk-sing').

This first section is the best portion of the play and the movie as well, and yes Hathaway's single-take performance of "I Dreamed A Dream" is every bit as terrific as you've heard, easily the best version of this iconic song that I've ever heard.  But while Hathaway's screen-time is brief, she makes every moment count, and if she wins the Best Supporting Actress Oscar (as she probably will) don't presume it's merely for her 4-minute showstopper.  But once the second act begins, the entire film more-or-less starts over and the last two acts feel incredibly rushed as just-introduced characters are expected to garner automatic sympathy and a blink-and-you miss it flirtation is supposed to capture our hearts.

This act also introduces the two 'comic relief' characters, and I will admit that I generally found myself skipping their big numbers when I listened to the score.  Sacha Baron Cohen as Thénardier and Helena Bonham Carter as Madame Thénardier certainly don't phone it in, and I'd argue they in fact tone down their broadness from the original show, but their criminal buffoonery still doesn't gel with an otherwise self-serious film/show.  Even if we allow that the would-be comic relief is basically represented by child abusers, comic relief is both not required and arguably inappropriate considering the grave situations. This isn't the Disney version of The Hunchback of Notre Dame where the singing gargoyles were there to distract kids from the otherwise bleakness at hand, this is technically an adult story intended for, at best, older kids.

The last two-thirds of the picture barrel through the narrative at a seeming lightning pace, introducing a band of rich kids who intend to rebel for little defined reason and an allegedly star-crossed romance between one of the rebels (a terrifically expressive Eddie Redmayne) and Fantine's now-grown daughter, Cosette (Amanda Seyfried, with a gorgeous singing voice per-usual but with no real character to play).  For much of the last 2/3, we're frankly expected to care not because the story works all that well onscreen but because we know the songs by heart.  But there is a certain perfunctory nature to even those songs, as they often feel less like a genuine explosion of character emotion and more like the actors remembering that, "Oh crap, it's time to sing 'Let Him Live'!".

Ironically, this is the case where the film's strong acting becomes a net-negative for the picture.  In a theatrical stage show, unless you are sitting at the very front row, you generally can't see the actors' faces and the idea of grandly singing their emotions makes sense as an arguable narrative necessity.  But the film is shot in such constant close-up, and the actors (especially Jackman, Crowe, and Redmayne) are so painfully expressive, that the songs often feel redundant.  Even the iconic "On My Own" comes off as completely unnecessary  as the film perfectly establishes the unrequited would-be romance between Redmayne's Marius and Samantha Barks's Éponine in the brief establishing moments that proceed Barks's big number.  As a result, it becomes less a matter of Barks singing her emotional arc than merely reaffirming what we already can clearly see because there's no way in hell a film version of Les Misérables is going to cut "On My Own".

This problem comes to bear frequently, with too much unnecessary singing to convey the ideas and emotions that we can clearly see on the actors' faces.  Crowe's fine performance accidentally betrays the film, as he simply can't play an un-shaded character, "accidentally" giving Javert such depth and moments of unexpected nuance (the film, to its credit, doesn't villainize the French soldiers who are ordered to put down the rebellion) that his big third act turn doesn't feel like that big of a deal, and hence his reaction to it feels completely false.It's tough to know whether the relative failure of Les Misérables is merely in the translation of mediums, or whether I merely gave the original show too much credit back in the day.  But as a film, it just doesn't work and doesn't pack anywhere near the emotional wallop (save a few moments in the first act and the very end) that you'd expect.

The songs are still fun to listen to and the film is full of terrific performances, so I'd argue that much of the surface-level strength of the show remains intact.  But, the film highlights what doesn't work about the story as well. It highlights the fact that the original show softened the main characters from the novel but as a result made those characters seem kinda stupid (for example, a climactic choice from Valjean makes absolutely no sense, because it was changed from the book to make Marius not come off as a jerk).  It brings to surface the painfully thin characters who dominate the latter half of the picture while making us realize how little we see of our would-be lead character after the first hour.  We notice how small-scale the would-be great revolution is, and that the film emphases the foolishness of the youthful warriors (and the tragedy of the soldiers ordered to slaughter them) only makes it harder to be roused with their big numbers.

Ironically, while Chris Columbus' Rent made us question our love for the source material by cutting crucial second-act songs (basically everything Mark-centric), Tom Hooper's Les Misérables diminishes the impact of its own story out of a ruthless fidelity to its source material.  If the play is perhaps flawed, then it was the filmmaker's job to make it better, to emphasize what's good and fix what doesn't quite work.  As it stands, the film's ultimate achievement is merely to make us question why we loved the original show in the first place.