Movie Review: Les Miserables (2012)
Director: Tom Hooper
Cast: Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, Anne Hathaway, Amanda Seyfried, Helena Bonham Carter, Socha Baron Cohen, Eddie Raymane, Samantha Barkes
There is a scene early in Les Miserables that is so soulful, so passionate, and yet so heartbreaking that, if there is any justice in the world, it should not only garner Anne Hathaway a Best Supporting Actress nomination, but should also win her the Oscar. It comes when her character Fantine sings the song “I Dreamed a Dream.” You may have seen clippings of the scene in the film's trailer, but believe me when I tell you, it doesn't even begin to do Hathaway's performance justice. The rest of the cast does just fine in their roles (with the exception of two particular players; more on them in a second), but none of them bring as much heart, soul, and passion to their roles as Hathaway does with hers.
This isn't to criticize any of the other actors. They do just fine with what they've been given which, sadly, isn't a whole lot. Marking the umpteenth adaptation of Victor Hugo's novel, this version of Les Miserables is a murky and unfocused misfire. Director Tom Hooper, who made the Oscar winning The King's Speech, gives the movie a curiously unpleasant visual look. Much of the movie is filmed in close-ups and shaky camera shots, in locations that are usually grungy and overcast. Many of the extreme close-ups become downright oppressive after a while, especially when they're used on characters as grotty as the ones here.
And many of the pivotal story elements are criminally undernourished. Take the relationship between Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) and Fantine's daughter Cosette (Amanda Seyfried), whom he adopts after Fantine dies. In the end of the film, he notes that it was in raising her that he has learned to love. We want to believe him, but there are so few scenes between Valjean and Cosette that their relationship never receives any development. Amanda Seyfried is actually really good in the role, which makes the fact that the movie seldom ever uses her all the more disappointing.
It also robs any depth from the romance between her and the French revolutionary Marius (Eddie Raymane). Raymane does terrific work with his role, and I would have liked to have seen more scenes between him and Seyfried, but the movie glosses over their relationship like it does with Cosette's and Valjean's, focusing more on the battle scenes between Marius and the other revolutionaries with the French soldiers. There are dramatic deaths sprinkled here and there (there is an instance where a young child is heartlessly gunned down), but none of it resonates.
Anyone who's read the book or seen any of the other film adaptations pretty much knows the story here. Jean Valjean is a prisoner who broke his parole and becomes a fugitive from the law. After trying to steal bags of silver from a kindly priest, he is captured, forgiven by the clergyman, and eventually finds salvation. He lives under a new identity and tries to start anew, but is later found by prison guard Javert (Russell Crowe), who makes it his mission to bring Valjean back to justice. Valjean reveals his true identity when an innocent man is arrested and mistaken for him, and what follows is a pursuit by Javert that is completely bereft of urgency or tension.
Adding insult to injury are the performances turned in by Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen, who play the Thenardiers, the bumbling caretakers Valjean rescues Cosette from. They do have an entertaining musical number called “The Master of the House,” but for the most part, their performances seem incongruous with the rest of the film. They resort to excessive mugging, making them seem like cartoon characters who somehow managed to wonder in from another film all together. As talented as these two are, the movie comes to an unfortunate halt every time they're on screen.
Credit must be given to Tom Hooper for employing a technical innovation that works wonders. Instead of having his cast lip-synch to pre-recorder tapes, he opted to have his actors singing live, which makes the musical numbers all the more special. Both the acting and the singing are very good here, with the highlight, of course, being Anne Hathaway's dynamite performance. We follow her character as she's fired from her job at a factory and is forced into prostitution, and it is in those scenes where we feel anything at all. When she leaves the film, everything begins to unravel.
If you do decide to see this film, you will at least see a spell-binding performance turned in by one of the most talented young actresses working in the business today. But Hathaway's performance alone is not enough to justify a viewing of the film. The film lumbers on for an agonizing 157 minutes, and given how little heart or depth is actually in the film, that's just too much of a bad thing.
** (out of ****)