Les Miserables (2012)

Directed by Tom Hooper
Written by William Nicholson

While among family during the Thanksgiving holiday, my movie loving uncle remarked, “Ooo, shhh, my movie!” when an ad came on the television for the new adaptation of Les Miserables. I need not go any further than the many opinions found on various internet sites to quickly learn that this musical is held close to many people’s hearts. It is a favorite of so many and as such, expectations and biases abound when it comes to the new film from Tom Hooper. It is a story that has been done so many times, but a new rendition with fresh, current faces is welcomed by many. So should I be shamed or excommunicated if I said that I had never seen the stage play? That I had never seen a film adaptation? That I am completely unfamiliar with the characters or the story? I would like to think not. Let’s just say that maybe I can bring a fresh perspective instead. I have nothing on which to base any nitpicking.

For those, like myself, who are completely unfamiliar with the hub bub surrounding Les Miserables, it is quite the sprawling narrative, a musical in fact. Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) is a French prisoner, enslaved as it were for stealing a loaf of bread. When he is finally granted parole after 19 years, he flees after an encounter with a priest. Years later, with prison guard/policeman Javert (Russell Crowe) still seeking the elusive Valjean, Jean makes an unlikely connection with Fantine (Anne Hathaway), one of his workers. With the fate of Fantine growing bleaker, Valjean vows to bring up her daughter, Cosette (Isabelle Allen/Amanda Seyfried). But when Cosette falls for a French revolutionary, Marius (Eddie Redmayne), the fate of everybody hangs in the balance.

 I quite like musicals, I suppose I just have not taken the time to really set out to watch many of the classics. Then again, the movie musical is a rarely seen thing in this day and age, though I am somewhat surprised that with the popularity of singing competition shows and things like Glee, that musicals aren’t making more of a comeback. The songs and singing here are a strength. I didn’t know any of them going into the film, and I don’t even know the names of the songs now, save one, but more on that later. A bit of an unexpected decision in the film was the fact that it was pretty much completely sung. Yes, it is a musical, that generally means to me a story with dialogue with songs and set numbers scattered throughout the film, but the dialogue was even sung in this film. At the end of the day it was neither this, nor that, but it did take an adjustment to get used to it. After about 20-30 minutes, it wasn’t an issue anymore because I was beginning to get more invested in the story.

A big part of that investment, and a real attention grabber, was the song “I Dreamed a Dream” performed by Anne Hathaway. Done in a single long take in beautiful close-up, Hathaway is able to sing beautifully all the while emoting as an actress. She nails the song and her performance perfectly. It is hard to give her the Oscar for a single 3 minute song, but it certainly should guarantee a nomination. It was then, in that single moment, that I became completely hooked and emotionally involved in the film. The performances were good all around, and the singing proficient to great from the entire cast. My other two favorites were Samantha Barks as Eponine, the girl whose love of Marius is as heartbreaking as her performance. And Eddie Redmayne as Marius was a pleasant surprise. He delivers a fine performance, but his singing is what impressed me the most.

The film is long, at nearly 3 hours, but it never felt long. I cannot say that the runtime was necessary, “necessary” just sounds like a sterile term to use here. The story deserves the runtime. There is so much going on in the film that its flows quite nicely from scene to scene and never did overstay its welcome. The story is just quite strong. I could see myself quite easily enjoying myself if the film didn’t even feature any songs. It is high drama at its best, interweaving heartbreaking romance with themes of redemption and piety. Hugh Jackman may be receiving much praise for his turn here as Jean Valjean, but to be honest, his was the least flashy role here. The bass player, holding down the rhythm of the film while letting Hathaway, Barks, Redmayne and co. to truly shine. Sasha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter appear to give the film a light comedic relief which, while not quite perfectly fitted into the film, doesn’t truly disturb it either. “Master of the House” was quite fun.

Be sure to bring tissues with you. The Christmas Day showing I went to, I don’t believe there was a dry eye in the house. It is certainly a crowd-pleasing film, but I must disagree with one of the blurb’s in the film’s TV ads. The film is “epic”, certainly, but “joyous” is not quite the word I would use. It is sad, a bit depressing, but that far from keeps it from being a stellar effort and one of the more enjoyable films I’ve seen this year.

***1/2 – Great

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