“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.”

Oh, wait. That’s Dickens, not Victor Hugo. Nonetheless, it’s a fairly apt summation of this latest film rendition of Les Miserables, which unlike the 1998 version starring Liam Neeson borrows almost entirely from the now well-established musical. In fact, despite a few not entirely unwelcome departures, this movie is for all intents and purposes a film version of the musical. Which means that this review is going to have a couple of different parts to it: First, a review of the film as it is, followed by a breakdown of what I see as some very big missed opportunities. Both are likely to contain some spoilers, so if by any chance you don’t know the story of Les Mis and don’t want to find out yet, skip on down to the verdict for a quick opinion on the film.

REVIEW:

The biggest thing the film does to set itself apart from all previous versions of the Les Mis musical, not to mention musical films in general, is its capture of vocal performance live on-set. Rather than pre-recording each song and then acting (and lip syncing) to the recording as the cameras roll, each actor sang live for each take (you can find a video about it here). Director Tom Hooper and the film’s producers should be commended for taking this risk as it really pays off. Although there are some very nice vocal performances, this cast of largely screen stars simply can’t match the vocal chops of a London or Broadway cast. On the other hand, film allows for a closeness that theater just can’t duplicate for a production like Les Mis. It results in some very raw performances that are compelling variations of the Les Mis musical theme. Sure, they’re not as pretty or measured as the sweeping stage performances, but the intimacy and rough edges work well with these struggling, ragged, often broken characters which Hugo first brought to life on the page. This doesn’t mean the performances are perfect, but there are none so weak as to fall noticeably short of the others.

PERFORMANCES:

Some early reports suggested Russell Crowe’s vocal talents were over matched in portraying Inspector Javert, but I didn’t find that to be the case. There were several points where Crowe wasn’t able to rise to the big swell needed to really punctuate a moment, but in general the quality of his vocal performance was fine. The bigger issue was that Crowe seemed to have difficulty emoting well while singing. We all know he’s a strong and accomplished actor, but too often his energies seemed consumed with hitting all the right notes. As a result he played a slightly more reserved Javert than you usually see, which wasn’t a bad thing, but Javert also needs to be able to explode at the really big moments and Crowe had trouble doing that through song.

Vocally, I found Amanda Seyfried as Cosette to be right with Crowe at the bottom of the vocal performances (though again, they both did a nice job and neither were so appreciably nor consistently below the level of the rest of the cast to drag down the level of the whole production). Although she has some very impressive moments – the first bit of her introductory song is particularly good – she had trouble sustaining notes and her vibrato was so rabid her voice at times called to mind twittering birds. However, Young Cosette, played by Isabelle Allen, was positively wonderful all around, and together the two made a quality portrayal of the character.

Anne Hathaway surprised me as Fantine. I confess I did not expect much from her, but she handled her role, both from a musical and an acting perspective, with aplomb. Her rendition of Fantine’s solo “I Dreamed A Dream” was one of the film’s most memorable moments, and her vocals were very strong throughout.

Continuing on down the line we have Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter as the Thenardiers. Although we’ve seen Carter play well in some very serious dramatic roles, such as in The King’s Speech, (and even Cohen to some extent in Hugo) both these actors seem most at home going a little crazy, and I really can’t imagine roles more suited. They’re a delightful mess from start to finish, and though they have considerably less asked of them musically than most of the cast, they both turn in fine vocal performance. If I were to have any complaint, they would be that Cohen’s accent seems a bit inconsistent and that both (but especially Cohen) at times border a bit to close to slapstick comedy. Thenardier is a comic figure, but the book also paints him as conniving and a bit cruel.

Having portrayed Eponine both in a production on London’s famed West End (their Broadway, for those unfamiliar) and subsequently in the musical’s 25th Anniversary Concert, Samantha Barks is, to my knowledge, the only one of the cast to have played in Les Mis before. In fact, unlike her co-stars, this is her first movie role. The vocals, of course, are not the issue here, but she makes an excellent transition from the style of the stage production to the style of the silver screen. Barks does a great job playing with the timing of the lines (again, a luxury afforded by the unique method of recording) and has no problem acting her part. If anything, I would have liked to see Eponine a little more ragged, but this is more the responsibility of costume and makeup. Eponine is my favorite character in the story, “On My Own” melts me every time, and Barks nails both the vocals and the character.

Next we have Eddie Redmayne’s Marius. Though Redmayne also has the occasional issue with emoting while singing, it’s far less – and less frequent – of a problem for him than for Russell Crow. All in all, Redmayne is one of the brightest spots of the film. I first became aware of him with his excellent performance in My Week with Marilynn, so I expected his acting in Les Mis to be strong (it is), but I was interested to hear him sing. He does a great job with all his musical parts, and his interactions with Seyfried’s Cosette were a pleasure to watch. Redmayne does a great job of capturing our favorite love-struck revolutionary.

Speaking of revolutionaries, Enjolras and the rest of them are on form. It seems the casting directors were willing to dig for vocal talent a bit more for these characters, as their singing is very good, but they handle the acting parts well and don’t overshadow the vocal performances of the main cast. Enjolras isn’t quite the booming leader here he is in the stage production, but this is a good thing. He and the others seem very much the idealistic students they’re supposed to be.

Which leaves us, of course, with Hugh Jackman in the role of Jean Valjean. More is asked of Jackman vocally than of any of any other actor, and while there are some spots that are just a tad rough he delivers a strong performance. Even the rough spots are readily excused by the more gritty, raw, personal style of the music here. Some of the high notes are straining, but never get beyond him and he is powerful in other places, such as the solo where Valjean renounces his past life as a criminal and pledges his life to God. In many ways Jackman is emblematic of the performances throughout the movie. There are high and low points, but he never swings too far to either end, arriving at a consistent “good” rating but falling short of “great.” Actually, my biggest issue with Valjean’s portrayal falls once again on makeup. The story essentially takes place in three time periods: Valjean the convict, Valjean the mayor, and Valjean in Paris. His lok for the first two phases is spot on, but by the third phase Valjean is supposed to be fairly considerably aged. I would have liked to see Jackman with more grey hair at this point, and in general looking a bit older. This would have also helped with some plot issues (more on this in a bit).

STORYLINE:

It seems weird to be talking about the story in something that’s been around as long as Les Mis, particularly when it sticks so closely to the well-established musical, but there are a couple of points, both positive and negative, worth discussing.

First, the positive. I liked the departures from the musical to add events such as Valjean and Cosette escaping Javert by scaling the Paris wall. The musical does a phenomenal job of distilling the essential points of the story into something that is cohesive and complete feeling, but there is so much more in the book that is omitted there, including some very important characterization.

That said, the musical has a runtime longer than the movie. It’s hard for me to say, but I imagine someone for whom this was their first exposure to the story of Les Mis might be very confused as to what was going on. The whole thing feels rushed, whether you know the story or not, and this seems to be due to an overreliance on the music. To get every iconic number in, we’re forced to move quickly from scene to scene with very little to fill in the space between.

I know the above critiques seem somewhat mutually exclusive – I like the additions, but think the film is too long. Rest assured I shall try to square that in a bit.

CINEMATOGRAPHY AND EDITING:

In both of these categories, something just seemed a bit off. There were some very pretty shots, and it’s not as though the editing was incompetent. It just seemed jumbled, unsure of itself and why it was making the decisions it made. For example, there is some consistency in the framing of most of the solo musical numbers. Characters are positioned about three quarters to one side of the screen with lots of negative space. This is a perfectly acceptable choice, but there doesn’t seem to be any reason behind it other than “this is what the cinematographer chose to do.” I found myself being distracted by the cinematography in these and other instances (such as the frequently shaky hand-cam style) not because the shots didn’t look nice, but because there didn’t seem to be any reasoning behind the way they were shot.  Likewise, the editing felt a bit haphazard. At times it was prone to cutting very quickly while at others it lingered on a single shot for periods of time not often seen in modern cinema. Now it may be argued that these were choices tactfully made. The quickest cuts occur when Valjean is travelling to show passage of time and space, while the long shots let us linger in highly emotional moments. This is true, but it seemed to me that many of the quick time cuts simply showed Valjean from a different angle against a similar background. This doesn’t communicate a change in time and space so much as it communicates a suspicion that the editor was drunk when he cut the sequence together. And in the tight bits there were some very arbitrary cuts back and forth between two angles, cuts that didn’t reflect character movement, but seemed to simply…exist.

OVERALL:

More or less, those are my thoughts on the movie as it stands. It biggest problem to me seemed to be a lack of solid direction. It didn’t seem to be sure exactly how it wanted to tell its rendition of Les Mis nor what that rendition would entail, and as a result the other aspects of the film were shooting at a moving target. Production values are high enough that nothing looks bad. It just looks odd from time to time, a little unfocused, a little self-contradictory.

Which leads me to…

Breakdown:

Basically what I want to do here is look at some of the missteps the film took conceptually, particularly in turning away from some things that should have been strengths for the production, and try to identify in hindsight what might have been the best direction for the production to go.

And with that, let’s jump in.

Although it seems to be a fad of late, I think Les Mis should have been broken up into two movies. It’s certainly long and complex enough to command that sort of treatment. As has already been mentioned, the play alone clocks in at around three hours and is about as minimal as you can get while maintaining a complete tale. The idea that a single movie could include basically everything from the musical plus extra elements from the book is frankly asinine. No, it doesn’t need to be a trilogy. But four to five hours total would have been perfect. The extra length lets you create a telling of Les Mis that is neither purely book nor purely musical, but a unique meshing of the two. It gives the production its own purpose to shoot for. It seems like the production wanted to head this way but was either constrained on the business end or didn’t have the courage to really go through with it.

So that’s the starting point. Next, let’s consider what strengths and weaknesses you gain by using screen actors that can sing (as I’ve said, there were some strong vocal performances and I don’t want to diminish that) but are not typically actors in musical theater (Samantha Barks excepted, I suppose). We saw it with Russell Crowe especially, but the few moments were interaction was made through dialogue (and action) rather than by song were some very strong moments. They were jarring because they were a departure from the operatic habit of singing every line, but when they did occur they were very good. This is to be expected. These actors are used to working with dialogue. They’re good at it.

And on the subject of those operatic lines, let’s remember that these actors aren’t vocal pros. The operatic bits work so well on stage for two reasons: 1) They’re a way to broadcast very personal emotions, things that might be whispered or missed in the distance between audience and stage. 2) They’re performed by actors of exceptional vocal talent. On screen, these little one-off sung lines feel weird. The intimacy of the camera doesn’t demand them to be sung, and even with someone of Hugh Jackman’s talent, they tended to sound like crazy mumblings. If they started a song that was one thing, but too often a character moved from dialogue into very brief musical lines, and it just felt weird. I wished they’d stick to dialogue at those moments because that’s what they’re better at, and it actually was more emotionally moving than hearing the same line sung. (This of course does not apply to the songs and the musical lines leading into them. I’m not trying to eradicate music from this musical adaptation.)

Likewise, the benefit of film is that you can have moments that are both very big and very small. In general, the film actually did a pretty good job of this. We get tight with the characters in some very intimate moments, and occasionally pull back to see the grand scale of things. I actually wish we had seen the big picture a little more. Les Mis is a big production in a very tumultuous historical period. This felt a little too much like an independent film (shaky camera included in that generalization). It’s not a big complaint, but tonally it felt like elements were moving away from the core of what Les Mis, both musical and book, is: a love epic about a few characters on a grand stage.

So basically that’s it. It seems to me that the production played away from the strengths of its actors and played away from the strengths of its medium. And that’s significant because…

The Verdict: 3.5 out of 5

I dearly love Les Miserables, and it’s hard to really say this film version is bad. It’s the third best version of the story, behind the book at 1A and a high-end production of the musical at 1B, but that’s really due more to the excellence of those versions more than significant shortcomings of the movie. It’s a good movie, and very enjoyable. But it’s not great.

I wanted to see this film be more than just a movie version of the musical, and there are elements which suggest it aspired to be more as well. It just isn’t really. It fails to carve out its own niche of excellence, yet it seemed in a perfect position to do just that. Even if it didn’t expand into two films (again, I think this would have been a very shrewd decision), it could have been more selective in the music it decided to employ. This runs the risk of alienating the hardcore fan, but with the potential payoff of creating something remarkable in its own right.

So go see Les Mis. Do. Despite some of the quirks in its execution, the performances are generally strong and you’ll be happy you went. But, oh, it could have been so much more.

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