HST… Film Review: Les Misérables

lesmiserables2Lauren:  Les Misérables is at the top of the list of stage productions I’ve been dying to see.  As I wait for it to return to the St. Louis area, the release of the film adaptation is making a powerful attempt to remove me from my misery until that day finally comes.

Zac: Eh…

That, “eh,” is meant to be a tad sensational above the line hook, but it isn’t really that far from my feelings on the film.  The often adapted stage musical has Tom Hooper using all of his juice after The King’s Speech to bring us the supposed definitive telling of this story in film form.  As someone who hasn’t seen the earlier films or the stage production I can’t comment to that, but if this is the best telling of that story than the previous works must be terrible.  But they aren’t, apparently, so what we are left with is a lukewarm telling of a potential engaging story that never really takes full advantage of the medium.

The film feels theatrical, and not in a good way.  Where a musical like Chicago or Moulin Rouge had these elaborate stage framing mechanisms, Les Mis is supposed to be a grand realization of this story taking place in the real world, and it doesn’t ever take advantage of that freedom.  Hooper instead decides to shoot these wonderfully realized sets and locations as if he was shooting a stage production.  The camera feels small and constrained, only breaking out of its shell for a couple wonderfully realized moments.

Lauren: Boo that, Zac.  I’ve always been a major fan of musicals, and I thought that this adaptation was done pretty well (not that I have other versions to compare it to).  I can agree that the camera work sometimes seemed a little stiff and contrived (how many times do we have to see shots of Russell Crowe from below to understand that he is a looming presence for Hugh Jackman’s fugitive?), and Jackman’s pacing in “Valjean’s Soliloquy” was definitely awkward as he and the camera were caged in a room together that appeared larger than it felt.  With that said, I loved a lot of the compositions the camera created with what was on screen, and I also felt that the editing was smoothly handled considering there were moments in numerous songs in which three or four people would accompany each other from separate locations.

Speaking of the music, something to know going in is that you can count the number of spoken words on your hands, making for some scenes in which “conversations” definitely would have been preferable had they been spoken.  These moments were slightly awkward, maybe laughable even, and poor Jackman was given a lot of them.  But past that, the larger numbers moved from grand scale theatrics (like the wall of whores during “Lovely Ladies”) and the barricade built with tossed down furniture from the surrounding windows, to spectacular choreographed scenes like with “Master of the House” in which Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter take advantage of the guests at their inn, to smaller, more intimate scenes in which there was no need for grandeur.  Take Anne Hathaway’s performance of “I Dreamed a Dream” that as far as I can remember was done in one shot, or close to it.  The camera remained close on her face throughout the entirety of the song, forcing viewers to really listen to the rather depressing lyrics that may have escaped them up till now (I know this was the first time I truly heard them, as with “On My Own”).  On top of that, all of these performances were done on set and not prerecorded, drenching these songs in more emotion that might not have been possible through lipsyncing.

Zac: The Hathaway number was the only song that felt appropriate locked into a close up and kept oh so intimate; but I’m not going to lie, I really couldn’t have cared much less about her character.  She goes through Hell, but is delivered so fast and told from outside her perspective that I couldn’t connect to Fantine at all.  Instead of that song punching me in the gut I just saw Hathaway doing some great work and some emotional singing.

Russell Crowe is the standout for me in the film as my interest in it immediately perked up every time he shows up on the screen.  You mention this shot from below image we get of him a lot of the time, but it’s those solos he gets where we are peering down to the world below that I found the most affecting.  This man is so commanding and powerful on the streets, but get him alone on a tower and he wonders if it is all worth it; no other character has the complexity he does.  Crowe and Jackman are also fantastic when pitted against each other, and these scenes certainly fit into some of the best of the film.  That is the story of the film and I wish it was even more focused on the Jean Valjean vs. Javert throughline instead of getting distracted by the weak romance and Cosette’s fate.

Lauren:  Even though the majority of their singing battles just seemed to be them repeating their own names to each other?

Zac: Yes.

The best sequence of the film outside Crowe was the first appearance of Coen and Carter with “Master of the House,” but while they start as a light diversion, they seem woefully out of place in the later half of the film.  I am also not so sure I can buy a daughter like Éponine coming out of those slimeballs.  Beyond being unbelievable, all of the characters added in the later half are all but wasted.  We get to know Éponine, Cosette and Marius for about two seconds before we sit around on those barricades, and I didn’t feel a single one of their connections to one another.  You need to show your characters connect for more than half a second if you want their love to be believed, and the film could have done with a bit more backstory rather than just moving the plot along.

Lauren:  I didn’t have any major problems with the love story between Amanda Seyfried’s Cosette and Eddie Redmayne’s Marius simply because these love at first sight stories are nothing new, especially in period pieces and musicals.  However, I definitely have a problem with how small a role Cosette seems to be.  She is supposed to be this huge presence in many characters’ lives, from Fantine’s for obvious reasons, then later with Jackman as she gives him a reason to hope for a better tomorrow (did anyone else feel that he was a pretty creepy character in how quickly he formed these really strong feelings towards children?), and then to Redmayne as someone to hope to come home to.  Maybe had she had a larger number of her own, but as it stands Éponine was the more interesting of the two younger girls, and a far more sympathetic character because of what she is willing to do for the love she has for someone, even knowing that it isn’t returned (granted she was given “On My Own,” which is definitely an unfair advantage).

The story of the film surrounding the major through line of Jean Valjean and Javert definitely goes through highs and lows as they try to fill out the world of “the miserable” around these characters, but I do feel that the film did the best it could with the story and musical numbers it was given.  And had it already not been at the rather lengthy runtime (that personally I never felt), something could have been done to further flesh it out.

Zac: That is a lot of qualifiers in that last sentence and I think the film carries a major qualifier in that the stronger your connection to the source material the more you will enjoy the film.  I know this wasn’t necessarily your experience, but for how fast the film moves along and how little depth the film tries to give the characters I feel you need a pre-existing relationship with the material to have an emotional impact.

I wouldn’t say avoid the film at all costs by any means, but I don’t think the film took full advantage of the medium.  If you are a fan of the show or have been excited by the excellent trailers I am not going to try and stop you from seeing this, but I think the film has a lot of room for disappointment.

Zac’s Final Grade: C+
Lauren’s Final Grade: B+

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