Jan 1, 2013

Film Review: Les Miserables

The best thing that can be said of Les Miserables, the movie directed by Tom Hooper based on the musical of the same name (which itself is based on a novel by Victor Hugo), is that it doesn't fail for lack of trying. Sure, some of the performances are a little lazy, but at least it feels like work was put into the staging and execution. The film tells the story of Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman), a man who commits himself to God and goodly works after his release from jail and his fleeing from parole. He inadvertently wrongs the angelic and
secretive Fantine (Anne Hathaway), which leads him to flee from the loud and pious Javert (a sleepy-eyed Russell Crowe) and raise Fantine’s daughter Cosette (Amanda Seyfried) as his own (he will be "both father and mother" to her). Cosette grows up, falls in love with Marius (Eddie Redmayne), and then the French Revolution kind of sneaks in there near the end. Added into this madness is the lovesick, tiny-waisted, and ill-cast Eponine (Samantha Barks) and her con-artist parents (Sacha Baron Cohen and the delightful Helena Bonham Carter), who muck things up in all manner of ways.

There are a few problems with the film.  First and foremost, there is the element of live singing that was so effusively touted with the promotion of the film. Most films require actors to record their songs months in advance of taping their scenes, and then they lip-sync to their pre-recorded selves when it comes time to film the scenes. In Les Mis, the actors are being recorded as they sing, which allows them to act and emotionally project in a more honest fashion as the sing. The whole thing is explained better in THIS VIDEO. Some of the actors, like Hathaway and Jackman, can act and sing rather well (though the latter has some trouble with the singing), but the video fails to mention that most of the cast tries so hard to sing that they don’t emote at all (or they try to sell the film emotionally and forget to sing well). Russell Crowe, bless him, can't really do either, and the film suffers from having such a weak-acted villain.  When he sings, his face barely moves, and his arms lie creepily limp at his sides. Amanda Seyfried, as the virginal Cosette and supposed centerpiece of the film, sells things visually, but her voice is tinny and uninspiring.

Anne Hathaway Dreamed a Dream of a Better Movie
The other problem with the live singing is that it requires most of the songs to be done in one take, which involves a lot of last directing and still cameras, often focused a bit too closely on the actors' faces.  Again, when it focuses on Anne Hathaway, the film is better for this device. But nobody needs to spend much time focused on Russell Crowe's bloated and unmoving visage, and Eddie Redmayne's crying face is… uncomfortable to watch. Another problem with all of the live singing is that the staging has to be pretty simple, since, when multiple people are singing at the same time, they need to be close to each other to hear the other people sing. It's weird to hear a soliloquy sung so close to the subject, which is exactly what happens every time Eponine attempts to sing (We say 'attempt' because her intense corset keeps her from having any strength in her voice, which is unfortunate since she is a broadWAY caliber singer, apparently).

The acting, with the exception of Crowe, is actually pretty good.  Anne Hathaway is amazing, and she's well on her way to Oscar-town with a powerhouse performance that’s over too soon. Hugh Jackman isn't always my cup of tea, but he's great here, especially in the first third of the film. The main problem with the acting is that nobody really commands the screen for that much time.  Because of the time shifts and character deaths, people don't really stick around for very long. There's nobody to root for, especially after (spoiler alert) Fantine eats it after her boobs get covered in snow.  There's no clear protagonist, really. Everyone just sort of does their bit and dies or lives, without much fanfare either way.

Such purity, so clumsily rendered.
We've touched on the directing already, but really it cannot be overstated how much Tom Hooper bungled this adaptation. It's his large flourishes (his overuse of Dutch angles) as well as the small moments.  Particularly, he completely screws up the dynamic of Eponine and Cosette. Eponine, who is supposed to be an audience-surrogate as the long-suffering love-slave to Marius, is given an unnecessary backstory as a spoiled brat, and she remains completely unsympathetic throughout the film. This is most probably done to make Cosette seem like the obvious person to relate to. The only problem is that she is just too pure. At one point, a butterfly practically flies out of her vagina as she walks through a beautifully-lit garden full of white wisteria. She's the antithesis of the dirty and trash-talking Eponine, and their dissimilarities weaken the film by making their 'rivalry' too easily black-and-white and then failing to substantiate any of it through the story.

HBC Side-Eye
Still, there are some bright spots. For instance:

  • Hathaway, like we've said over and over in this review, is amazing. It really makes us upset that we find her so annoying in real life. Her "I Dreamed a Dream" is beautiful, sad, and powerful. Her sorrowful face and trembling body help propel the film farther than it ever should. 
  • Also, we're aware that people have had mixed reactions to Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen as the Thénardiers, but we loved them. HBC, in particular, brings an energy and humor sorely missed from the rest of the film, and her patented HBC side-eye is a sight to behold. 
  • The first forty-five minutes of the film are electric and perfect and everything that you want the musical to be. 
  • Eddie Redmayne's voice, while not our cup of tea, is strong and boisterous, and it gets some help from the strength of Aaron Tveit's Enjolras and Daniel Huttlestone's tiny and powerful Gavroche.
It's not a film devoid of pleasure, and it certainly seems like everyone tried their hardest. It’s almost like they try too hard, really. The film feels sweaty from effort and a bit too simple all at the same time, which is a complicated combination.

Film Grade: C+
Anne Hathaway Grade: A+
Helena Bonham Carter Side-Eye Grade: A-
Russell Crowe Grade: F

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