First, a confession: I have never read Les Miserables by Victor Hugo. Nor have I seen any previous film adaptations of the book. Nor have I seen the subsequent stage musical. So I come to this completely unaware as to whom Les is, and precisely why he is miserable.
My conclusion after seeing the film is this: there’s probably a decent novel in there somewhere, but shame about the music. This Les Miserables stands or falls on whether or not one cares for the songs. Frankly I didn’t. I found them dangerously close to Andrew Lloyd-Webber-ishness, and I have a pathological aversion to all things Andrew Lloyd-Webber. If on the other hand such tedious warblings are your cup of tea, you’ll probably love this.
For those not in the know the story is set in the early 19th Century as Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) is released on parole having served nineteen years for stealing a loaf of bread. But unforgiving officer Javert (Russell Crowe) warns him he will be on parole for the rest of his life and that he will be watching and waiting for the chance to put him back in prison. Valjean is shown little kindness in the outside world as a result of his criminal history, until a kindly priest takes him in. Valjean then tries to rob him, but when he is caught the priest covers for him, saying the treasures he took were a gift. As a result of the priest’s uncommon mercy Valjean resolves to do something good with the rest of his life, but breaks his parole to do so. Years later Javert is still hot on his trail although Valjean has become a successful businessman taking a keen interest in the plight of the poor. When a series of unfortunate events forces one of his former employees Fantine (Anne Hathaway) into prostitution and despair, Valjean resolves to help her child. But at that point Javert catches up with him again and… Well, it wouldn’t do to spoil the plot.
There’s nothing technically bad about the film per se. Tom Hooper directs with flair, and the production and sets (and CGI) are suitably lavish and look great on a big screen. Then there are the performances. Most are fairly good, from Hugh Jackman to Eddie Redmayne and even Russell Crowe who can’t sing. Amanda Seyfried is bland in what is essentially a fairly bland role, but there are other good supporting parts from Helena Bonham Carter, Sacha Baron Cohen and Samantha Barks. Most notable of all is Anne Hathaway’s Oscar-bait performance, nigh-on guaranteed to win her a supporting actress nod on account of her uglying-up and anguished singing. I still think Amy Adams’ more nuanced performance in The Master should win (and I say that as a huge Anne Hathaway fan). But I digress.
The fact that the music wasn’t pre-recorded and was instead recorded live on set adds a tremendous naturalistic boost to the piece. It doesn’t really matter if they hit the odd wrong note since the performances feel more real as a result. But this isn’t the great innovation some are making out. Woody Allen pulled a similar stunt with 1997’s Everyone says I love you, which was wonderful. And Baz Luhrmann sort of did with 2001’s Moulin Rouge, which was even more wonderful.
Sadly, wonderful is not an adjective I would use in conjunction with this film. Because I didn’t personally respond to the musical aspect, the whole thing felt deeply tedious, interminably drawn out, and by the end I felt the urge to gun down the revolutionaries just to shut them up. In fairness there is a great deal of good stuff morally and spiritually – plenty about forgiveness and grace triumphing over legalism and revenge, and the highlighting the plight of the poor. Ultimately the film (and, I would imagine, Victor Hugo’s source material) exposes the folly of self-appointed revolutionaries and does feature tremendous portrayals of true Christian love. But I just couldn’t get past the music. My fault for not reading the book first, no doubt.