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Review: Les Misérables (2012)

Les Misérables (2012)

Directed by: Tom Hooper

Premise: An adaptation of the stage musical. Set in 19th Century France, a convict (Hugh Jackman) assumes a new identity and spends decades eluding a lawman (Russell Crowe) while raising an adopted daughter (Isabelle Allen, Amanda Seyfried).

What Works: Les Misérables is an ambitious and mostly successful adaptation of the stage musical. The challenge for filmmakers in reworking a stage production into a motion picture is making it properly cinematic. A lot of productions retain too much of the theater and become the equivalent of recording the stage show. Les Misérables breaks out of the form of the stage and at the very least this film is notable for its cinematic qualities. Director Tom Hooper makes very interesting choices, often recording musical performances in extreme close ups and using handheld camerawork and other techniques not usually associated with the musical film genre. This is a very well designed production and its sets, costumes and makeup have the dirtiness and distress that gave life to Hooper’s John Adams mini-series. Just as in that television production, the filmmakers of Les Misérables are able to contrast broad visual spectacle with intimate characterization and that is accomplished through creative uses of sound. In typical musical productions, the music tracks are recorded in preproduction and the actors lip-synch to those recordings during the filming. For this version of Les Misérables, the vocals were recorded during filming, with instrumentation added during postproduction. That technique captures the emotion of the actors in the moment of their performance and it also gives those vocal performances a rawness that matches the gritty style of the filmmaking. This is seized upon by the actors and there some very notable performances here among the supporting cast, namely Anne Hathaway and Eddie Redmayne as Fantine and Marius, respectively. Hathaway’s rendition of “I Dreamed a Dream” will likely go down as one of the great recordings of a frequently covered song and Redmayne’s performance makes the youthful spirit of revolution and tragedy of Les Misérables palatable in ways that are lacking in the rest of the movie. Also notable are Sacha Barron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter as the Thénardiers. They bring a lot of humor to the film, especially Cohen who is funnier here than in many of his staring projects like The Dictator.

What Doesn’t: How viewers feel about the sound recording technique in Les Misérables is going to determine how they feel about the movie. The quality of the vocal performances is uneven, which is part of the point of  the recording technique  employed by the filmmakers, but it’s going to be off-putting to those who come to the film expecting it to sound like their Les Misérables Broadway cast recording CD. This film cannot be judged against those other performances; it requires a different kind of aesthetic measurement. Whatever the concerns about the singing, there are other significant flaws to Les Misérables, most of which are faults of the source material. Les Misérables is led by characters Jean Valjean, played by Hugh Jackman, and Javert, played by Russell Crowe, and neither of them is compelling. They don’t do much in the course of the story and the narrative lacks decisive character beats throughout the middle of the film. By comparison, many of the supporting characters played by Anne Hathaway, Eddie Redmayne, and Samantha Barks are far more interesting. There are a number of other problems with Les Misérables, not the least of which is the fact that Jean Valjean is a wanted convict who has the means to flee anywhere in the world but stays in the same city where the one person who knows who he is patrols the streets. Les Misérables also demonstrates a naïve understanding of its politics, especially the nature and cost of revolution. Les Misérables is in many respects the political equivalent of movies like The Patriot and the filmmakers of this adaptation don’t address or attempt to complicate those problems.

Bottom Line: Les Misérables is a good film that takes some artistic risks and employs some filmmaking innovations. It is prevented from being a great film because of the inherent flaws of the source material but director Tom Hooper and his cast and crew deserve recognition for making something unique.

Episode: #421 (January 6, 2013)