Solid but unfulfilling adaptation of France’s finest novel
Adapting “Les Miserables” by Hugo is one of the most daunting tasks a filmmaker can take on. It’s already perhaps France’s finest novel and a beloved stage musical; turning it into a film that matches either of them is something not even the most skilled auteur could pull off. Tom Hooper has tried and mostly succeeded with a film that’s going to wind up with an armful of Oscars in early 2013.
The film follows Jean Veljean (Hugh Jackman), a convict who spent nearly 20 years behind bars for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his family (and trying to escape multiple times) in 1815 France. Unable to secure work because of his status as a “dangerous” man, Veljean changes his name and makes a new life for himself to avoid the pursuit of an Inspector (Russell Crowe) with a zeal for enforcing the law. After succeeding in a new life as a wealthy factory owner, and mayor of a town, he winds up nearly exposing himself by trying to care for a dying prostitute (Anne Hathaway) who had been previously fired from his factory. He makes the dying woman a promise though: care for her young child (Isabelle Allen as a child, Amanda Seyfried as an adult) who’s being taken care of by two less than honest innkeepers (Sacha Baron Cohen, Helena Bonham Carter).
Years later he’s the father figure to the now adult Cosette in the midst of a revolution against the King of France. In the midst of his revolutionary yearning Marius (Eddie Redmayne) meets Cosette and they instantly fall in love, much to the chagrin of both Jean and Marius’s unrequited love Eponine (Samantha Barks). What follows is a tale of love set amidst a France in much more electric times as Jean has to avoid the zeal of Javert, who has had a hankering for justice when it comes to the now parole violator Valjean.
As a spectacle this might be the film of the year as this is absolutely what Hugo and the creators of the musical would’ve imagined a film version of his work to be. Every aspect of this film is gorgeous to look at; in a year of some spectacular imagery certainly Les Mis saved the best for last. As both a visual and audio spectacle it’s a tremendous piece of work. Hooper has crafted a visual masterpiece to go along with by far the best score of the year; it’s understated when it has to be, powerful when it needs to be and set perfectly to where the film needs to go. Every aspect of this from a purely a/v perspective is marvelous.
The problem comes from the way in which the film was designed. Normally in a musical you record six months out and then mime to the lyrics on stage. While it provides the best audio for the film, as it can be tuned and sweetened in the studio beforehand, it also forces actors to make all their decisions before they’re on set. Being able to sing live allows for better performances but it also doesn’t allow for actors without great musical chops to be compensated for. Bonham Carter and Cohen aren’t tremendously gifted in this regard and their scenes wind up flat because of it; even Russell Crowe, who has the powerful presence of Javert, isn’t given the best vocal range to use in the film. They aren’t quite Johnny Depp in Sweeney Todd level bad but they’re not far above that qualitative level; this is a film that could’ve used some help in that regard and Hooper sacrifices the film’s singing in parts to have a more dramatic film.
It’s gutsy but doesn’t pay off in big doses like he’d hoped, one imagines. He also has most of the cast singing their lines when some would be better off without it. Crowe is almost an eyesore because of it; the few great moments he has are the few moments when he isn’t singing. It’s not that he has a bad voice, far from it, but it’s not quite tailored for the character as Hooper has designed him. He’s trying for someone with a big physical presence and a big booming voice and while Crowe has both his singing doesn’t add or subtract anything from the film. It just exists because it has to and it’s a shame because Javert is such a grand character; Crowe is a near perfect choice for it but it just doesn’t feel right.
It’s a shame because this film has two of the year’s best performances from Hathaway and Barks. Barks has a bit of an edge over the rest of the cast, as Eponine is a character she’s played in the stage version before to high accolades, but she knows this character in and out. There’s real pain in her eyes as the boy she’s been in love with for a long time, the one she’d do anything for, loves someone else in that way. It’s at times hard to watch because it’s so raw and powerful.
The film’s true standout is Hathaway. Jackman makes for a good Veljean, and probably will earn an Oscar nomination for it, but it’ll be a crime if Hathaway is overlooked. Fantine is a splendid character and the film’s first half is nearly magical because of how grand Hathaway is. We knew she could sing, as she and Jackman lit up an otherwise dull Oscar ceremony years ago with a song and dance number, but her version of “I dreamed a dream” is almost haunting in how good it is. When she dies the film takes a noticeable step backward without her; this might end up becoming the performance that defines her career and if so it’s a spectacular one.
One has to admire Tom Hooper in a way; he reached for the stars and cashed in every chip he had to get Les Miserables on the big screen with a cast any director would kill for. He got a massive budget and got to do it the way he wanted, as well. And he mostly succeeded in a way few directors do; Michael Cimino famously sank a studio with Heaven’s Gate and plenty of Oscar winning directors never hit the same level again after doing similar things. Hooper has delivered a film that manages to hit the heart and soul, and give Les Mis fans the film they wanted, but doesn’t hit that final gear to turn this from good film to masterpiece.
Director: Tom Hooper Writer: William Nicholson, Alain Boublil, Claude-Michel Schonberg and Herbert Kretzmer based off the musical of the same name (by Boublil and Schonberg) and the novel “Les Miserables” by Victor Hugo Notable Cast: Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, Anne Hathaway, Amanda Seyfried, Eddie Redmayne, Samantha Barks, Helena Bonham Carter, Sacha Baron Cohen, Isabelle Allen
Scott Sawitz is an Inside Pulse original. He's also been featured on The Ultimate Fighter.com, Fox Sports.com, Nerdcore Movement.com, CagePotato.com, Inside Fights.com and Film Arcade.net (among others). When Scott isn't writing about film he's making his own. Check out Drunk Justice Productions right here.