Directed by: Tom Hooper
Written by: William Nicholson (screenplay), Herbert Kretzmer (lyrics), Victor Hugo (novel)
Starring: Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, Anne Hathaway and Amanda Seyfried
When I originally saw Les Misérables, I was so disheartened and uninspired that I didn’t even want to write down any thoughts about it. Anne Hathaway was great, yes. At times the raw combination of extended takes done in close-up and live singing from the performers was thrilling. But the movie was bloated, sloppy and completely overdone.
Having not seen the stage musical or read Victor Hugo’s gargantuan novel, I came to the material with completely fresh eyes. It begins with a sweeping, artificial-looking descent into a 19th century French work camp, where Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) is completing a 20 year work sentence for stealing a loaf of bread for his family. He is overseen by Javert (Russell Crowe), a ruthless, incredibly narrow character whose sole pursuit throughout the movie is to show up conveniently at any given scenario where Valjean is present and make him squirm.
The movie hinges on their incredibly poorly realized relationship and countless manipulative emotional tangents. Les Misérables seems to operate with the understanding that it deserves every wrenching, song-driven outburst without the slightest bit of narrative coherence. More so than director Tom Hooper’s previous Oscar-baiting effort The King’s Speech, it is a deliberate ploy to earn trophies with period costume design and unearned emotional response.
As grimy and desperate as Jackman appears and as surprisingly good as Crowe’s singing voice is, the movie is punishing. It peaks less than an hour into its two-and-a-half hour run time with Hathaway’s take on “I Dreamed a Dream,” where her downtrodden prostitute Fantine weeps for her ruined life after she’s sold her hair and teeth to support her daughter. Shot in a single take like several of the other numbers, it is a very good illustration of what Hooper occasionally does very well and often does very poorly with this material. The close-up of Hathaway’s face is effective precisely because it seems unable to contain her emotion, and because her singing is raw.
Jackman’s Valjean, on the other hand, does not have the luxury of being an effective character in close-up. He is often on the move evading the authorities or trying to rescue and care for Fantine’s daughter Cosette (Isabelle Allen as a young girl and Amanda Seyfried as a young woman), but the constraints Hooper placed on the musical demand that he must capture the singing live, and gets the camera in obsessively close to highlight just how live and strained his performers are.
This would be an admirable effort if the movie wasn’t such a blatant grab at awards. Despite the desperate hearts at its core, it is exhausting not because the story is effective but because it isn’t. It jumps ahead years at a time, stopping for revolution and love but never expanding or really caring about them. The music often adds nothing to a scene, and despite coherent, elaborate costume choices and set design it never transports you. Above all else, Les Misérables is the triumph of artifice over feeling and entitlement over storytelling.