Les Miserables (2012 Film) Review

Contains Spoilers.

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

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The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (2012 Film) Review

(Contains spoilers)

I’ve fallen so behind with my posts!  In what became an added stress to a generally fantastic, if busy, week, I only arrived home from the screening of The Hobbit last Wednesday at midnight, so didn’t have time to write up a review.  This will be a very short review, summarising my thoughts, and probably reiterating what many better film reviewers have said.  It’s also from the perspective of someone who’s read the book before, albeit half their life ago.

I was very excited about this film.  The Lord of the Rings trilogy would easily rank among my favourite book/films, and I expected The Hobbit to be just the same.  I had heard that it is nothing like LOTR, which is to be expected.  You don’t even have to read the books to see the vast differences in tone, simply noting the difference in font size gives a clear idea!  The Hobbit is much lighter than LOTR with far more comedy.  So how did it do?

Not bad.  The Hobbit is far from perfect, but it is an admirable addition to the franchise.  Visually, it is possible to see the development of computer generated imagery in the last decade, which is prevalent throughout almost the entirety of the film.  This gives it a very fantastical, sometimes almost ‘cartoony’ feel, which matches The Hobbit’s tone.  However, I feel this sometimes goes too far.  While the landscapes are absolutely stunning, I agree with many critics that the film gains no favours from having computer-generated orcs and goblins.  Particularly in the case of major characters, such as Azog and the Goblin King, who would have benefited by the physical presence of an actor.  One reviewer stated it was watching a video game, and I quite agree.

The acting was, on the whole, brilliant.  I was interested in seeing Martin Freeman as Bilbo, having previously seen him as John Watson in the BBC’s Sherlock, and he did not disappoint.  He will forever be Bilbo to me, and carries on well the character which Ian Holm first developed in LOTR, bringing his own attributes to the part but clearly playing the same character.  Returning characters were excellent as ever, if sometimes clearly 10 years older – there did not seem to be much attempt to hide Ian McKellan’s ageing.  Christopher Lee played Saruman well and had the same presence he always brings to roles, which is admirable considering he turned ninety earlier this year.  The dwarves were much as I imagined them, though few were developed to any significant degree and were mostly used for comic effect.  I’m not a great fan of unnecessary comedy so most of this passed me by, but it was good for what it was.

But the clear standout of both the effects and acting was Gollum.  Andy Serkis gives an astounding performance once again as the deranged, deadly yet pitiful character.  Gollum looks ever so subtly younger, though it is difficult to state how – a tribute to both the acting and animation.  The difference between ‘Sméagol’ and ‘Gollum’ is immediately noticeable; the eyes flash from cute and innocent to calculating and dangerous in an instant.  I expect more awards to come Gollum’s way in the near future.  Gollum also has the honour of providing some of the few genuine laughs I had during the film – particularly, during the game of riddles, his schizophrenic exchange: “Oh, I know, I know!” “Shut up!”  And, put simply, he was so cute!  I felt his despair upon losing the Ring, however wrong I knew it to be.  Easily the most sympathetic and pitiful character in the whole film.

One major problem the film had was pace.  I appreciated the cinematic display of backstory to open the film, giving it the same grandeur feel which LOTR had.  However I felt it was unnecessary to include ‘modern-day’ Bilbo and Frodo.  This assumes the audience has seen the LOTR trilogy and makes it appear to be a spin-off rather than a film of its own right.  The Hobbit was published before LOTR and it feels wrong for the film to be cast along as a ‘younger sibling’ in this way, as it often is.  The film takes far too long to leave Hobbiton and truly get started – about an hour, compared to around 10% through the book.  And once it does leave Hobbiton, despite following the book closely, is simply a series of dangerous situations followed by a fight and victory – particularly once the party enter the Misty Mountains.  I found myself bored by fight scene after fight scene, each one similar to the last, so that the final climactic battle between Thorin, Azog and Bilbo had little effect on me.  I was merely glad once it had ended.

Finally, the film is less realistic than LOTR.  Perhaps this was intentional, but it leads to more potential criticisms of an overly fantastical nature and being like a video game.  The two main examples occur during the fight scenes to escape from the Goblin Kingdom.  Firstly, and this is also a criticism I have of LOTR, the Dwarves must be astonishingly accomplished fighters to take on the entire Goblin army and escape unscathed.  Their invincibility continues as they plummet into the depths of the mines, bouncing from the walls, and again land unscathed.  Are we to assume that dwarves in fact contain several layers of blubber?  There are various other fantasy elements which feel out of place, such as the fight between the giants, which although not unrealistic in themselves – clearly, as this is a fantasy film – the lack of explanation leaves me wondering how it is possible.  Though there are no limits to the imagination in fantasy worlds, they must have rules and explanations, otherwise the story has no boundaries and feels unconvincing.  This is something Tolkein usually achieved to great success within his work, causing this to jar even more.  And most confusingly, why couldn’t the eagles fly them all the way to Erebor rather than planting them in front of a deep, dangerous forest?

I’ve heaped much criticism onto The Hobbit, but I do need to reiterate that I heavily enjoyed the film.  It was never going to live up to the legacy of LOTR, and that aside it didn’t, in my opinion, quite reach its potential.  Despite that, it’s still an excellent film that will long be remembered, if doomed to be eternally shadowed by its older sibling – much like the book itself.

Final rating: 8/10