An Interloper Offers Weekend Film Commentary: Les Miserables

Based on its vivid colors and exaggerated gestures, one is tempted to dismiss Academy Award Best Picture nominee Les Miserables as a cartoon. But cartoons have clarity of line and a sense of direction, not to mention momentum from frame to frame. This movie is more like the result of dropping the Sunday funnies in a mud-puddle: smeared with detritus and coming apart at the seams.

Start with the source. The musical itself, though much beloved by aficionados of Glee and Smash, takes Victor Hugo’s outraged critique of post-revolutionary France and turns it into a parade. While purporting to address the depredations and degradations of poverty, Cameron Mackintosh’s production was staged so elaborately that it depended on $150 tickets to keep it running. Thus there was the awkward matter of cheering gaunt poor people on the barricades from plush seats in the orchestra.

Happily even overpriced movies like this one cost only $10 or so to see, reducing the contradiction between medium and message. But director Tom Hooper (The King’s Speech) and his collaborators have replaced that one difficulty with a raft of their own: frying pan, meet fire.

First, Hooper is too enamored of his genuine French scenery to shoot an opera––necessarily a stylized event––in an appropriately artificial fashion. (The Anna Karenina device of placing the movie within a stage set would have worked brilliantly here.) But he won’t shoot these realistic scenes in natural light, or anything resembling it, because he’s also too enamored of all the stars he’s cast. So instead we get blinding illuminations of the dying face of Fantine (Anne Hathaway), of the three days’ growth of beard chronically sported by Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) and of the moles which make stern Inspector Javert (Russell Crowe) look like an ogre instead of a complicated man too wrapped up in doing his duty as he sees it to recognize its impact on the world.

Many reviewers have blamed Crowe for everything wrong with Les Miz, making particular fun of his 30 Odd Foot of Grunts-level singing. In fact his work is perfectly adequate, and it’s not his fault either that Javert’s songs are humdrum or that he’s required to perform them perched ludicrously atop a horse at the edge of a storm-tossed battlement, a setting that reveals nothing about this pivotal character except that he doesn’t know enough to come in out of the rain.

What’s wrong with Les Miz goes much deeper. This is famously the story of a man (Valjean) imprisoned for stealing a loaf of bread whose jailer (Javert) becomes obsessed with him. (Remember Lieutenant Girard’s dogged search for Richard Kimble? Ever wonder who was handling his other cases while he relentlessly pursued this single Fugitive? The same thought strikes here.) While on the run Valjean encounters numerous others trying to make a life on the margins of late-Napoleonic France, including a saintly priest and the piteous Fantine, a woman whose out-of-wedlock child makes her first a pariah and then a prostitute. (Now we’re on Route 66, with its inexhaustible supply of characters having interesting problems adjacent to the famous highway. But episodic television is supposed to consist of episodes; full-length movies are supposed to have developing plots and characters.)

By the time Valjean and Fantine cross paths she’s got time only for a dying wish: that this near-stranger protect her daughter from Fantine’s own fate. Another series of episodes: Valjean looks for Cosette, finds Cosette, springs Cosette from street thugs (played with excess relish by Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter), rears Cosette and finally turns Cosette (by now a young woman) over to Marius, the Paris communard with whom she’s fallen in love.

Somewhere in all this Valjean is also supposed to go beyond proper guardianship and fall in love with Cosette (Amanda Seyfried). Hugo’s work includes a strong whiff of forbidden love; Hooper’s does not, as Jackman never appears anything beyond avuncular. And without that element, the second half of Les Miz is nearly pointless. If Valjean never allows himself to be emotionally vulnerable, his life is no more interesting than a game of Pac-Man; we watch indifferently as he scuttles barely ahead of the open jaws of the law.

(Sure, our proposed romantic hero is a lot older than either Seyfried or Eddie Redmayne, who plays her age-appropriate lover. But between Redmayne and Hugh Jackman, one-time People Magazine “Sexiest Man in the World,” there’s no contest. Sure, Jackman isn’t as young as he used to be––but given the way he looks I wouldn’t care if rigor had set in.)

I raced to this movie based on the moment in the previews when Anne Hathaway unfurls an amazing voice and the acting chops to match for “I Dreamed A Dream.” And that scene is truly wonderful; but it’s a long, hard slog from there to the end, with neither absorbing plot nor moving performance nor distinguished score to alleviate the monotony. So see that big scene here or when it appears (as it’s bound to) on Oscar night. Then gaze into the mirror like so many of the characters in the film, and warble yourself congratulations on the time and money you just saved.

Cross-posted with WBEZ.org, Chicago Public Media

Author: Kelly Kleiman

Kelly Kleiman is a freelance writer on the arts, feminism, travel and social justice. Her reportage and essays have appeared in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post and Christian Science Monitor, among other dailies; in magazines, including In These Times and Dance; in the alternative press; on the BBC; and on Chicago Public Radio, where she’s one of the “Dueling Critics” and a contributor to the Onstage Backstage theater blog. She is also a consultant to charities and editor and publisher of The Nonprofiteer, a blog about charity, philanthropy and nonprofit management. She holds undergraduate and law degrees from the University of Chicago.

19 thoughts on “An Interloper Offers Weekend Film Commentary: Les Miserables”

    1. Would you complain if someone revealed that in Hamlet, all the major characters except Horatio end up dead?

      1. WHAT? How dare you tell me that! I thought Laertes and Polonius went on to open a deli on the lower east side.

    2. Not sure if this is a spoiler: I’m not a fan and won’t pay these outrageous stage prices to see overproduced plays, but I was surprised at how many lines I knew.

  1. I will certainly never see this film, but I have a great deal of affection for the 1935 non-musical film treatment of Hugo’s novel, with one of my very favorite film actors, Fredric March, as Jean Valjean, the always wonderful Charles Laughton as Javert, and Cedric Hardwicke as Monsieur Bienvenu. No film could ever encompass everything in the novel, and this movie doesn’t try to, but it certainly never fails to sustain the interest of its audience, and it’s a really classic example of mid-1930s Hollywood quality film-making.

    I remember watching it on television once back in the 1970s; I think it was on WDCA channel 20 in Washington DC. Back in those days, that station mostly showed violently butchered old movies. They would hack out huge parts of the films in order to accommodate more commercials, although why they didn’t just run the commercials and let the uncut film take a longer time slot I don’t know, but that was very common in those days. Anyway, after every commercial break, the announcer would come on to say something like “and now back to Les Miserables [which he pronounced as in English] starring Cedric Hardwicke”. But they had cut out the entire first part of the film, and Hardwicke as Monsieur Bienvenu never appeared on screen at all. Of course, not only was it very silly to tout the star performance that had been cut out of the movie, without that part the story doesn’t make any kind of sense.

    I see that the 1935 film is available from Netflix, presumably intact.

    1. It’s been filmed many times as a straight drama. I agree with you that the 1935 version is magnifique.

    2. Treat yourself to the Orson Welles radio adaptation sometime. It’s floating around on the Internet. A real gem.

  2. My wife wanted to see it so I went, at the overpriced rate. Yes, there were some bad parts. Anne Hathaway was a marvel. Some other parts were OK. Date night, $5.00 is fine. Much more than that and you may regret it, even though the play was just so wonderful and you really want the movie to be like the play!!!

  3. “that scene is truly wonderful”

    Yes, it was. It was extraordinary. And it was something that could only be done on film: the overwhelming emotional power of opera in close-up.

    But you’re right about the rest of the movie. And I don’t think the problem could be rectified by making Valjean in love with Cosette. That would just be creepy. The problem for me is that the Cosette-Marius love affair is not compelling. Marius isn’t a real revolutionary; he’s a boy with a rich daddy who’s play-acting. He shrugs off the love of a poor girl, who is killed (nobly), and falls for Cosette, who also has a rich daddy, and looks it. The 1832 uprising becomes a stage set for the story of two kids with trust funds. I couldn’t get interested in either one of them.

    1. I went into Les Mis believing all the bad reviews and expecting it to be super tedius and boring. I think NPR said something like ‘disaster from beginning to end,’ but we needed a movie to go to with wife and parents, so this was it. And it was great, with an emotional impact similar, to me, to Zeffirelli’s “Romeo and Juliet.”

      Oh, and I can’t STAND “Glee” by the way, and don’t know what “Smash” is.

      Les Mis is something like a new cinema/opera form. I hope they try this formula again on other projects, with the close-ups and the choice of skill at acting and vocal interpretation over pure voice.

  4. ” .. episodic television is supposed to consist of episodes..”
    A common form of first publication of novels in the 19th century was in episodes in magazines. See Balzac, Dickens, Dumas père, Dostoievsky, Tolstoy. That’s why they are so long and episodic in structure, and lend themselves very well to serialisation on TV by the BBC.
    Unusually, Hugo did not follow this for Les Misérables. According to French Wikipedia, this was mainly because he wanted to get round the Third Empire’s inefficient censorship.

  5. In the reprise of Heart Full of Love, Valjean sings the part that Eponine sang first, but with the pronouns switched: he is to Cosette as Eponine to Marius. And in the death scene (in the stage version) Eponine is brought on to complete both triangles. It’s subtle, but it’s there.

    Hooper, of course, misses all this and replaces Eponine with the Bishop of Digne welcoming Valjean to heaven.

  6. Not having seen previous versions I found the movie interesting, a good date night with my wife. (We have one about once a week.) But I couldn’t help saying on Facebook: I just saw Russell Crowe playing Batman in Les Miz.

  7. I saw the movie and loved it. I think that it could have been tightened up, but i don’know what i would have cut.
    The problem with Valjean being in romantic love with Cosette would be obvious today; back the. It. Ight have been more acceptable.

  8. I understand that people see politics everywhere —when I saw _Hero_ it was obvious to me how political a movie it was.
    And I can’t see a movie like _The Hurt Locker_ as a “work of art”, rather than as a political statement. But Les Mis is long enough ago and far enough away that I can let that go.

    And so I do find it remarkable how different a reaction we all have to music and musicals. For me, Les Mis is about the fact that the music
    (a) makes me weep like a little kid (especially the two main death scenes) and
    (b) pumps more endorphins in my brain than a junkie in a hospital pharmacy. I shiver, my skin gets gooseflesh, I get tingles all over my body.

    Mock my taste in music if you like, I honestly don’t care. But isn’t it strange that music has this effect, on at least some of us? (And apparently not on others of us. My brother seems to have no idea what I mean when I talk about tingles and gooseflesh from music, and he does listen to music, he just doesn’t seem to get that kick from it.)

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