The worst type of movie is the one that fails to live up to expectations. Usually when this happens, the movie itself is far below what it could and should have been. Usually, the standalone trailer is astonishing, managing to hit a range of emotions in a short two minutes, while the movie itself, when fleshed out to feature length, completely misses the mark. Rarely, however, does a movie fail to live up to expectations and is still as good as Les Misérables. It would be somewhat of a stretch to call it one of the greatest musicals ever made—it’s not even one of the best movies of this year—but its narrative grandiosity, lush visuals, assured direction and phenomenal performances from a terrific ensemble cast make it more than your ordinary film musical. Les Misérables deftly crafts unparalleled moments of beauty and awe, conveying true emotion around themes of love, loss and hardship that will cause all but the most hardened viewers to sympathize with, and maybe even cry for, those fighting onscreen.
Based on the Victor Hugo novel from 1862 (and adapted into a stage musical in 1980), Les Misérables follows Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman), a Frenchman who has spent many years as a prisoner and slave for stealing bread, overseen by policeman Javert (Russell Crowe). When the film begins, he is finally released from his imprisonment, but is put on parole for the rest of his life. If he breaks it, he will be hunted down and captured. Rather than heed that warning, he breaks parole anyway and starts a new life as a wealthy factory owner and mayor of the town he has chosen to settle in. One day, he runs into Fantine (Anne Hathaway), an ex-employee of his who was fired from his factory and is now selling herself to make ends meet and support her young daughter, Cosette (Isabelle Allen). After tragedy strikes Fantine, Jean decides to adopt Cosette and raise her as his own, all while he hides from Javert’s relentless pursuit. Many years pass and Cosette (now played by Amanda Seyfried), is all grown up and they’re about to find themselves in the middle of a revolution.
Les Misérables isn’t like your typical musical. It’s not full of flamboyant choreography or energetic numbers that are cut to resemble a music video. Instead, it’s very reserved. The camera more often than not settles on close-ups and rolls without cutting, the performers singing their numbers in one take. This lends terrific weight to a film that relies almost entirely on the emotional fragility of its viewers. When the actors sing these songs, pouring their hearts and souls into them, and you are so close that you see every twitch in their skin and tear forming in their eyes, it’s impossible not to feel something. In particular, Anne Hathaway’s rendition of “I Dreamed a Dream” is heartbreaking and, perhaps due to this single moment in a nearly three hour long film, likely to win her an Oscar.
Much of the emotional impact comes from the fact that, unlike most movie musicals that pre-record their songs before shooting, the actors are singing the songs in real time, much like Rex Harrison in My Fair Lady. There’s no lip-synching present here and the turmoil of the characters comes through tenfold because they’re singing in character, not in some studio behind a microphone. It’s a tactic that is brilliantly used by director Tom Hooper, who, if 2010’s remarkable The King’s Speech is any indication, knows how to maximize the effect his movies have on an audience.
Despite the tragic story that unfolds and the many deaths that accompany it, Les Misérables has some lighthearted moments that come mostly from Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter as Thénardier and Madame Thénardier. Their presence is ever welcome in the sea of sadness, but there’s too little of them and they end up overshadowing some of the other, bleaker moments, if for no other reason than because they’re more upbeat. This discrepancy between these two different styles is indicative of the film as a whole, in that certain sections aren’t as interesting as others. Very few movies of this length have the ability to maintain viewer attention and with a gap of songs that range from breathtaking to flat out boring, Les Misérables doesn’t pull it off.
It’s still a wonder to behold, though, and its final scene, despite some lags in the narrative, packs a punch that wasn’t paralleled in any other movie this year. There has been a lot of hyperbole when expressing opinions of it in recent months, however. Some are saying it’s one of the best musicals (or even crazier, one of the best movies) ever while others are saying it’s overwrought, overlong and manipulative. Neither of those extremes are accurate. Les Misérables is neither great nor terrible, but it’s effective and rousing and, provided you can sit still for almost three hours, absolutely worth a watch.
Les Misérables receives 4/5