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Review: 'Les Miserables'

Victor Hugo's epic novel comes to life (almost) on the big screen.

 

It’s a bit late to call me Scrooge, but an hour or so into the almost 3 hour long Les Miserables, I found myself re-writing the lyrics to the most famous song from the show (thank you, Susan Boyle).

"I dreamed a dream this film would end..." Alas, I had to wait 2 hours.

I enjoyed much of this mammoth spectacle and was seated amidst an audience of many viewers awash in tears from start to finish. I never saw the full original stage production, but I’ve seen the 25th anniversary concert, numerous excerpts on PBS and YouTube and was well prepared to not just endure but revel in Victor Hugo’s sprawling tale of war, love, loss, death, revenge and redemption. For me it was an exercise in excess trumping true emotion and spectacle over the kind of detail that would have been for more gripping cinema. Les Miz has by now played in just about every country on planet Earth, and I suspect a touring production is packing them in on Mars or Jupiter as I write this. 

About the above-referenced song, Anne Hathaway, as Fantine, acquits herself wonderfully in her rendition, although the rule of “less equals more” applies here in spades. Looking appropriately starved, weary, terrified, she turns in one of many wonderful performances in Tom Hooper’s screen extravaganza, but here she practically screams “Pity me!” rather than let the song’s lyrics speak for themselves.

As he demonstrated so brilliantly in 2010’s  Oscar winner, The King’s Speech, the director can manipulate an audience to great effect, showing us with painful realism the struggle the King of England had to deal with merely to utter a few words in overcoming his severe stutter. 

In Les Miz, unfortunately he appears to have lost his way in the vast sound-stages of Paris in the 19th century and never came up with a satisfactory visual style that would balance the gritty realism of the suffering of the French people and the built-in artifice of directing a musical where people break into song at the drop of a chapeau.

The meat and potatoes (or pain et pommes de terres in this case) is of course the painful odyssey of protagonist Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) and his pursuit by the evil Javert (Russell Crowe). Readers of the novel will have an advantage over us mere viewers of the film in understanding Javert’s unrelenting obsessive hounding of a man whose only crime was stealing a baguette, but it says something for how truly great is French bread. 

The opening scene of Javert pressed into servitude among hundreds of other “miserables” hauling a huge ship from its dry-dock into the water was for me the most powerful image of the entire film. Jackman, bearded, haggard, starved evokes our outrage at the unjustness and cruelty of man against man. But here, too, once he begins to sing in his fine, albeit slightly pinched tenor, he telegraphs rather than lets his agony become self-apparent.

The story jumps years later as Valjean has broken parole and is now a successful business owner but still lives in terror of Javert, who seems to lurk at every corner. Valjean has made it his life’s work to care for the grown-up Cossette of Amanda Seyfried, the girl born to Fantine, and this secondary plot of torn apart longings and romances occupies much of the remainder of screen time with, for the most part, exemplary results. 

See this Les Miz but try to read the original, as I plan to do...someday.

 

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