The hills are alive with the sound of revolution! The 1,000-page book that became a movie and then another movie, then another, as well a Broadway and worldwide musical hit finally become massive mainstream movie that aimed to be the grandest musical but managed only a technically flawed yet richly acted film.
I will take the exact stance on “Les Miserables” as I did on “Cloud Atlas” in that there is no way to describe quickly the entirety of this story without ending up with a 10-page review and a drool-ridden piece of paper. All you need to know is it centered around an ex-convict Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) as he spent years reinventing himself by becoming a mayor and later taking in the daughter of a former employee-turned-prostitute (Anne Hathaway), with it all leading up to the climatic beginning of the French Revolution. It’s just like “Atlas” with all the character intersections but with more singing and less meaning.
To be frank, I know nothing of old-style musicals. Of course, you have “South Pacific,” “Singin’ in the Rain” and “The Sound of Music” but those films are more like the modern musicals in that they have make room for actual dialogue. “Les Miserables” takes from the age-old operas in which singing takes the place of spoken-word dialog, and that included the necessary big, climatic numbers. To be frank, yet again, despite my lack of exposure to this method, I can honestly say it was not for me, nor for many mainstream moviegoers.
A child of the modern musical era, a musical works best with singing done as a representation of the deepest bursts of emotion that people in the normal world would never do and are entranced when seeing others do it on screen, laid bare. Though done here on occasion (see Hathaway’s “I Dreamed a Dream”), the majority contributed to a bombardment of vocals. It was like taking something already perfectly cooked and overcooking, it thinking the burn marks add flavor.
Director Tom Hooper (“The King’s Speech”) was up to the task of handling the ensemble cast. Jackman and Hathaway gave open and heartfelt performances with some of the best numbers in the film, as Hooper made the wise decision to shoot many of them in single, live takes.
But however good Hooper is at directing actors, his consistently tight shots and choppy editing made a 2.5 hour film seem disorienting and distracting from the terrific production design that deserved to be taken to the fullest extent. It was hard to love a film that sacrificed the beauty of Paris for Russell Crowe’s face.
All in all, “Les Miserable” was a mixed bag. Music aficionados will weep; everyone else won’t get it. The singing was beautiful yet forced; the acting was either astounding or expected; the production design was gorgeous, but the audience hardly got to delve in. The film collapsed on itself in trying to be the grand, epic musical everyone wanted it to be. But, hey, if the movie could talk, it would probably say it would return to the theater, its first and true love.