Books Magazine

Les Misèrables

By Scriptedwhim
Les Misèrables
Les Misèrables, the musical based on Victor Hugo’s epic novel, is not subtle. It’s all pomp and bombast, every song rising to an explosive crescendo, every performer spilling their soul all over the stage, every theme shouted out in swooping, cacophonous leitmotif. That earnestness has served it well, as the stage show has been consistently popular since its debut in 1985. Without the benefit of a live setting, it’s harder to give oneself over to this screen version, but director Tom Hooper tries his damndest to show the audience a good, thoroughly miserable time.
The time is the early 19th century, the place post-Napoleonic France, by most accounts a sucky point at which to be alive. The story follows recently paroled criminal Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) over a span of years, starting immediately after his release from prison for stealing a loaf of bread, tracing his rise to an honest job as the mayor of a provincial village, and concluding with his involvement in one of France’s many failed bids for revolution. It’s sweeping stuff, the kind of material that would seem well-suited for musical adaptation, and the songs do not let it down. They are big. Really big, and there are a lot of them, each one an upwards curve leading to a series of glory notes designed to catapult viewers from their seats in spasms of inspiration. There are no small songs in Les Misèrables, only small singers.
Unfortunately, the movie has a couple of those. As Valjean, Broadway-trained Jackman acquits himself well, providing the movie with the closest thing it has to an anchor. As penniless prostitute Fantine, co-star Anne Hathaway gets the movie’s biggest moment, a raggedly affecting rendition of self-pitying power balled ‘I Dreamed A Dream,’ filmed in an almost uncomfortably close close-up. In a musical made up of big damn moments, it doesn’t get bigger than that. Others don’t fare as well. Amanda Seyfried, who plays Valjean’s adopted daughter Cosette, has a tinny voice pitched below the intensity her songs require. Russell Crowe has already taken a lot of flack for his performance as the relentlessly principled police office Javert. The flack is justified. His voice is thin and soft without much texture, and whenever he sings it brings whatever emotional momentum the movie has managed to build up to a stop.
And Les Misèrables, both as a stage musical and a movie, depends on that momentum to survive. There are no great insights here: it is terrible to be poor, life is hard but rewarding, and to love is a wonderful thing. The stage version of this show has been successful by pounding these messages relentlessly into its audience by way of soaring vocal pyrotechnics until they are too overcome to resist. The movie strips much of that away, opting for quieter, more intimate performances shot as often as not in intense close-ups. Sometimes, as in Fantine’s number, this works, but at others it seems like Hooper is searching for a subtlety that, despite the best efforts of his case and crew, is just not present.
Les Misèrables, then, works or doesn’t depending on the song being sung that minute, without much in the way of connective tissue. It soars, it drops, and ultimately it becomes a that-was-good, that-wasn’t, that-was-fun-what-else-is-on kind of historical epic.
A review by Dan Selcke

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