Those who have been reading my blog for awhile may have noticed that my tolerance and appreciation for musicals has gotten better. I am much less likely to roll my eyes or groan in pain whenever films break into an elaborate song and dance number. In fact, apart from awkward singing conversations, the musical aspect was one of my favorite things about Tom Hooper’s Les Misérables.
The film is a musical form of Victor Hugo’s novel that has come from page, to stage and to screen. Hugh Jackman plays Jean Valjean, who was harshly sentenced to years as a slave for stealing bread for his sister’s child. He breaks parole and makes a new life for himself, but always fears his real identity will send him back to prison. Russell Crowe plays Javert, the inspector who will uphold the law dutifully and chase Valjean to no end. Along the way Valjean’s life is touched and changed by a kind bishop, Fantine (Anne Hathaway), her daughter Cosette (Isabelle Allen as a child, Amanda Seyfried as a young woman) and the young men pushing France into revolution.
The opening longshot, beginning under water and rising up to see a tipping ship being pulled by hundreds of slaves in a storm, absolutely astounded me. I felt my jaw literally drop and my expectations for a beautifully shot film rise. Unfortunately, that was the visual high of the film. I kept seeing glimpses of beautiful sets, but they were all obscured by the large singing faces that dominated the screen.
I understand how close-ups are something you just won’t get if you see a stage production of Les Misérables, so why not enjoy them in a film production? However, it’s too much and too often. I’m the kind of person who prefers the back of a classroom so I can see all my setting and I can have plenty of space between myself and those facing me. At one point during the film, I realized I had my feet on the seat in front of me, trying to push myself back from Jackman’s singing face on the screen. It was too much and too close for comfort. And for those who will defend that he’s not a bad face too look at, maybe so, but I never want to be so close that I can see snot glistening in his nostril.
Despite being in their faces too much, I enjoyed all the different actors, their characters and singing talent. Jackman’s leads the film both musically and emotionally, fitting perfectly into Valjean at the different stages in his life. Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen are a fun swindling duo who add some much needed comic relief. The child actors, mainly Isabelle Allen and Daniel Huttlestone, add vocal range and melt our hearts with their sad stories. While Russell Crowe certainly isn’t the best singer in the film, he isn’t awful, as some sources led me to expect. Besides, if any character is going to sound like he’s got a stick up his ass, it’s going to be Javert.
Anne Hathaway gives the strongest performance in the film. Even before she is cast out into the street, she shows us what a vulnerable and fragile person Fantine is. Her shining moment is singing I Dreamed a Dream. The whole song is done in one continuous shot, always keeping Hathaway’s face toward us and in frame. This moment, her singing, her face feels like an overwhelming wave of crushing despair and sorrow. It was the one moment in the film that brought tears to my eyes and I heard a few sniffles around the theater.
Les Misérables is nominated for for eight Academy Awards. Along with best picture, the film is competing for best sound mixing, original song, costume design, hair and makeup design and production design. In the acting categories, Hugh Jackman is nominated for lead actor and Anne Hathaway is nominated for supporting actress. I believe Hathaway will come home with the Oscar, but that may be the only one for Les Mis.
While Les Misérables is well done film with a beautiful soundtrack, I found the whole experience a little disappointing. It was far too long. I found myself checking the time only an hour into the film wondering how the last hour had lasted so long. Unless you are really into checking out every last detail of someone’s face, the film is visually lacking. Still, as far as epic musicals go, Les Mis is good, will draw you in emotionally, give you some engaging characters and leave you with a good tune in your head.
“Suddenly the world seems a different place, somehow full of grace and delight.”
Nice review. I had a mixed opinion on this film. I enjoyed the performances but found the movie to be bombastic, particularly Tom Hooper’s direction.
Thanks for commenting, glad to see I wasn’t the only one with mixed opinions.
Good review. I really l;voed this movie and does what all musicals should do: emotionally-impact you to the core. I know I’m in the minority on this one, but still, I really liked this one.
You’re right, the film does have a lot of emotional impact and therefore is a success.
I definitely liked this way more the second time I saw it. I was not even going to go again but when I did I connected with it a lot more. I was unfamiliar with the music and I found it to be kind of a drawback (plus I wasn’t expecting there to be THAT much singing) but the second time it was much better.
I get what you’re saying about the big faces though. When he was singing the song about how all his revolutionary friends are dead I was thinking: “Eddie Redmayne needs a shave” which was not even true and I wouldn’t have thought it if it hadn’t been such an extreme close up. Also it distracted from the sadness of the song, instead of intensifying it as it was probably meant to.
I also really wish this had had an intermission. There was a clear place there could have been one (I’m assuming that’s where it is in the stage show) but Hooper didn’t give it to us for some reason. I think it would have helped the length a lot if I just could have taken a break, which is of course why they invented intermissions in the first place!
An intermission would have been wonderful! So glad to hear that it wasn’t just me who got distracted by the extreme faces. I kept wondering if Redmayne’s freckles were makeup or not.
I felt sorry for Redmayne, too. When I listen to the soundtrack, I think, “Wow, he has a really beautiful voice.” Watching the film, I thought, “That’s a weird-looking dude.” Which he isn’t, but human heads aren’t usually that big. It was like being at Easter Island. 🙂
I liked it, mostly, but I’d seen the show on stage and knew more or less what to expect. I did find the close-ups along with some of the camera work. During “What Have I Done” the camera seemed to be scurrying back and forth after Valjean like a puppy at dinnertime.
I agree that Anne Hathaway was the best thing in it, which is one reason the second act can seem overly long. As I said on my blog, I have to pay more attention to her – I’d just seen The Dark Knight Rises a few days before, and she’s easily the best thing in both pictures.
And the roles are pretty different. 🙂
“scurrying back and forth after Valjean like a puppy at dinnertime.” What a perfect description! And what a great year for Hathaway.
I just read that Scarlett Johansson was considered for Fantine (and Taylor Swift for Eponine).
Yikes. That would have eliminated the two best performances in the picture. Well, Robert Altman used to say that the most important thing he did in his movies was the casting.
Wow, what a different movie that would have been. Never underestimate the power of casting.
This is actually my favorite movie of the year thus far. Like CMrok said though, it pretty much boils down to the fact that it really hit me emotionally (and the music is great, of course). I also am a big fan of melodrama and musicals as well, so it’s probably just right up my alley. I definitely prefer it to “Chicago.” I will be pretty disappointed if Hathaway somehow loses the Oscar.
Aaron, I’m a little disappointed Les Mis didn’t hit me very hard emotionally. But I am much more open to musicals now than I was in years past. Perhaps this will grow on me more over time, I hope.
I stand by my comments on your “Predictions” posting about it not being my favorite musical. I still can’t remember the actual melodies of the two (really well-acted) solo musical numbers performed by Jackman and Crowe; and while I still appreciate the close-ups giving the film the intimacy which it so lacked on stage, I thinks your criticism is right on the mark–too much and too often the faces were engulfing the whole screen. I still think part of this is a matter of a balancing act between basically emotionless music and grand-scale set concepts. Whatever one thinks of Andrew Lloyd Webber, the music of Phantom is memorable and the emotion evident whether one is on the 4th row orchestra or in the 2nd balcony. With LES MIS, not so much–maybe more mid-range shots would have done just as well. And yet, one of the best numbers in the film was “One More Day” partially because of the great editing and the crown jewel was the “Dream” number which made me weep, closeups and all. Still one of the top 5 and Anne Hathaway should absolutely win Supporting Actress for that display. Would not object to an Oscar for Art Direction, either. And To stick up for Hooper a bit, I think he did improve on the Broadway production.
Ken, I have never seen a Broadway musical production (but God I want to!), so I can only imagine the differences. Yes, there is something delightfully un-catchy about the songs. I don’t really mind it, they stay in the moment and don’t linger much. The only melody I can really recall in my head was Look Down, probably because it was such a strong opening and the theme came back now and then throughout the film.