I have to admit it: I’m not a great fan of musicals. The bombastic musical numbers, stereotypical jazz hands and lack of realism usually grate heavily on me. I’ve never seen classics such as Grease or Mamma Mia, and I never plan to, since I have no interest in watching clichés in action. But Les Miserables was always clearly going to be different. I didn’t know much about it, other than being set during revolutionary France – which, honestly, is alone enough to sell a film for me – and that it features much misery. And I’d heard glowing reviews for it. So, I thought I’d go see it; this was not a mistake.
At 157 minutes in length, my intolerance of sitting through whole films was sure to be tested to its limit, much as it was during my viewing of The Hobbit. I had no reason to fear, for the film was a thoroughly engaging experience from beginning to end, and I only looked at my watch four times – low for my standards! This is in part due to the very interesting way in which the film tackles the plot. It’s set primarily across three time periods: 1815, 1823 and 1832. In 1815, Jean Valjean has just been released from servitude for the crime of stealing bread, and the story covers his refusal to report for parole and attempts to escape from capture by the policeman Javert. The events of 1823 include Valjean, now a successful businessman, continuing to avoid Javert; his worker Fantine’s descent into poverty, prostitution and eventually death; and Valjean’s adoption of Fantine’s daughter, Cosette. In 1832 the events of the failed June Rebellion play out and brings together every character. More a tribute to the original Victor Hugo 1862 novel than this adaptation, the plot skillfully develops the characters and themes, perfectly intertwining them together. Not until the final twenty minutes does Les Miserables begin to feel repetitive and dragged out, and even here the film is such an enjoyable watch that I hardly noticed.
The acting is terrific. Hugh Jackman is the undeniable star as Valjean, hardly identifiable as the same actor between 1815 and 1832. I actually was quite confused about who was whom to begin with, partly down to my inability to instantly recognise faces but also due to his incredible acting. Russell Crowe is good as Javert, and I’m just going to admit that I liked his singing, too. This might not mean much coming from someone who enjoys atonal music (I suspect I’m slightly tone deaf) but I don’t understand all the negativity towards his performance. The entire cast seemed so perfect in their roles that unless you’re an experienced music critique (I’m not) then it isn’t worth mentioning everyone individually. The only characters I didn’t enjoy were Thénardier and his wife, played by Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter. This wasn’t down to their acting, I just found their comedy roles grating and went against the tone of the film.
In terms of writing, I was heavily impressed by the development of the characters. To praise him again, Valjean must be one of the most realistic, developed and three-dimensional characters in the history of literature. The fact that this comes across in a musical is truly remarkable. Fantine, Marius and Éponine are, likewise, also developed to an astonishing degree. Less so is Cosette, who while excellently portrayed as a child feels underdeveloped as a teenager. This is largely down to the ‘love at first sight’ method of introducing her romance with Marius, where they look at each other and are suddenly a couple. For such an important feature of the story, there’s not much excuse for this – particularly considering the high standard of everything else.
I’m torn over the film’s depiction of historical events. While someone without a knowledge of French history between 1789 and 1848 will undoubtedly allow most historical references to go over their head, I’m debating whether this is a bad thing. The film is not worse for omitting explanations of who the monarchs were, of leaving no reference to the 1830 revolution only two years previous to the events in 1832, or for lacking much mention of the Napoleonic Wars. I have located one area which could have had a bit more development however. It’s never clear precisely why the students want to get rid of the monarchy; while there are mentions of “King after King” being no better than each other, and the social environment definitely shows how a revolution would be desirable, perhaps another line or two wouldn’t go amiss – it almost seems like a student project for some Practical Politics degree.
Most of my comments may be more suited to a critique of the novel – which I plan to read someday – so I need to mention the music. From the very beginning, it’s apparent that the music is utterly fitting and beautiful. Whether singing in desperation, (such as Fantine’s famous ‘I Dreamed a Dream’), resolve (‘Valjean’s Soliloquy’), love (‘A Heart Full of Love’), sadness (‘Empty Chairs at Empty Tables’) or hope (‘Do You Hear the People Sing?’), each song is a heart-swelling wonder. Even Javert’s ‘Stars’ and ‘Javert’s Suicide’ I enjoyed. The only song which grated was ‘Master of the House’, for the same reason I didn’t like the Thénardiers which I mentioned above. Outwith the context of the film the soundtrack stands up as nothing short of brilliance. Particular standouts are ‘I Dreamed a Dream’, ‘On My Own’, ‘One More Day’ and ‘Do You Hear the People Sing?’.
The direction was also completely captivating. Tom Hooper really brings the historical setting alive with wide, sweeping shots interspersed with close ups which bring the intensity of emotion directly to the viewer. Mark Kermode commented on the wisdom of avoiding medium shots, to truly create an experience which would be impossible to witness in a theatre. The shot which pans down on 1832 Paris, past the elephant, has to be my favourite moment in the film.
Les Miserables is a film which has refused to leave my thoughts since I saw it. I’m possessed by a fervent desire to re-watch it, which is always a good thing. The characters, the music, the setting… Virtually everything is perfect. By far it’s the best film I’ve seen for a while, and I would highly recommend it.
Coming Soon: Les Miserables (musical) review & Les Miserables (novel) review.
Final Rating: 9.5/10