‘Les Misérables’ Review: The movie musical of dreams

Les Misérables has the difficult task of weaving film, literature, and musical theater into one enormous work of art while at the same time attempting to please fans’ high expectations. While there may be some imperfection within this process, Oscar-winning director Tom Hooper soars in bringing this completely engrossing and exceptionally fresh cinematic experience to life.

One does not typically view movie musicals in theaters if he or she is not already a musical fan. Sure, it could be the best film ever known to man, but if every line is sung, moviegoers can be completely turned off by it if they are not interested in this genre. Therefore, I must begin with stating my absolute love of musicals and film, which perhaps makes me a tad biased in my opinion of Les Misérables. However, I’ll try to remain open-minded!

Photo: Universal Pictures, Hugh Jackman as Valjean

Photo: Universal Pictures, Hugh Jackman as Valjean

The film’s synopsis from IMDb is as follows:

Prisoner 24601, known as Jean Valjean, is released from prison and breaks parole to create a new life for himself while evading the grip of the persistent Inspector Javert. Set post-revolutionary France, the story reaches resolution against the background of the June Rebellion.

The beginning of the film is bombastic and sweeping, clearly utilizing the benefits of cinema as opposed to stage. The rest of the sets are a bit lackluster, but they match the somber and degraded tone of the film and its characters inhabiting the grungy streets of Paris. Although the film houses multiple stories within one huge narrative in order to tell Jean Valjean’s (Hugh Jackman) life story, one never loses sight of his personal quest for redemption through love.

Supporting characters such as Cosette (Amanda Seyfried), Enjorlas (Aaron Tveit) and Éponine (Samantha Barks) do not get as much time to develop as some, and Anne Hathaway’s memorable Fantine is unfortunately short-lived, which may be more to blame on the source material than the film, as Les Misérables already clocks in at a lengthy 157 minutes. Even so, each character remains ever-present in the film and will undoubtedly please fans of both the musical and the novel, despite the cramped space for some supporting character development. Even the Thénardiers (Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter) are able to offer some welcome comic relief in such a dark tale. Let’s just say that if you were willing to take the time to read Victor Hugo’s hefty novel or sit through the musical production, you certainly will not get antsy during this emotionally riveting film.

Photo: Universal Pictures, Samantha Barks as Éponine, Eddie Redmayne as Marius

Photo: Universal Pictures, Samantha Barks as Eponine, Eddie Redmayne as Marius

Movie musicals may seem similar at first glance, but usually differ dramatically once they hit the big screen. For every Sound of Music (1965) there is also a Rent (2005), and for every Chicago (2002) there is also a Hairspray (2007); they could not be more different. However, Les Misérables takes this genre a step further by telling a dismal – while at the same time, hopeful – story that is heavy on the drama, but also heavy on the music. As I have discussed in a previous blog post, this film also breaks from its genre by having the actors all sing live while filming, creating a truly unique experience from past movie musicals.

This live singing certainly pays off in the film, as you can feel the anguish or joy of the characters as they are singing, and although it makes the singing less technically perfect, it lets the actors make choices that feel right for their characters in the moment instead of having their emotions prerecorded on an audio track before they step on set.

Photo: Universal Pictures, Anne Hathaway as Fantine

Photo: Universal Pictures, Anne Hathaway as Fantine

Anne Hathaway performs a single take of her character Fantine’s song, “I Dreamed a Dream,” that displays the benefit of this artistic choice, and its impact is beautifully heartwrenching. Her voice is stunning, but it does waver in order to show the audience her character’s emotions at the time of the song. Few words are spoken within the film, as most of the lines are sung, so this conveyance of emotion is critical to the film’s success, or else it could be just a beautifully staged concert.

There are other times when this choice is not quite as successful, as some singers tend to look more like they are just standing there singing instead of acting through it. Poor Eddie Redmayne (Marius) has a wonderful vocal range, but his body betrays him as his head-shaking vibrato whenever he sings gets distracting. Also, if you are new to the musical genre, it may be difficult to get into the film at first, as it is a bit strange to see Russell Crowe (Javert) and Hugh Jackman (Valjean) angrily singing to each other. Nevertheless, if two guys in Hollywood could pull it off, it seems like these two are appropriate choices.

Les Misérables – and all other movie musicals – toes a fine line between having the viewer suspend belief enough to enjoy the characters singing with each other while at the same time making you realize that it’s not something that happens in real life. However, the process of live singing makes it even more blurry as to where this fantasy begins, making their performances even more raw and believable, although you understand that in reality, people do not sing about life like that. It’s a strange paradox, but thoroughly enjoyable at the least. If you are any fan of movie musicals and love epic, heartbreaking stories of redemption, Les Misérables is a fantastic way to have both.

Les Misérables Grade: A-

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