Movie Review: Les Misérables

I liked this movie. Perhaps not as much as everyone else in the theater, the vast majority of whom sniffled, gulped, and blew their noses throughout (especially each time a character sang a sad song and then expired). But I really did like it. It’s a different type of movie musical: no song and dance numbers (with the exception of the comic relief of “Master of the House”), almost no spoken dialogue, earnest and dark.

Whether or not you like it will likely depend on whether or not you 1) like musical theater and 2) like movie musicals. If the former, you may not like the movie version of Les Miz. It’s one of the few musicals I’ve seen on stage. (I’ve only seen four musicals onstage, aside from high school, and those only because a dear friend I grew up with was starring in them!) The singing is generally decent (with one exception) but nowhere near the standard of music theater. And you’ll find it much darker and less sweeping than the stage version.

On the other hand, if you DON’T like movie musicals, you might actually like this movie. The singing here serves to drive the story along and the songs actually seem acted, a product of director Tom Hooper’s decision to record the singing live. (In most movie musicals, the singing is recorded in a sound studio and overdubbed.) This gives it a sheen of authenticity and feeling that’s absent from many movie musicals. I could almost completely do without the pseudo-libretto bridge dialogue between songs – that’s something that may turn off non-movie musical folks.

I expected this movie to be epic in scope – and it certainly starts that way with the dramatic image of rows of chained convicts singing as they pull an enormous warship into a drydock berth in the midst of crashing waves – but it’s surprisingly intimate, if not occasionally claustrophobic. Most of the major songs are stage in small settings – Anne Hathaway’s Fantine singing the heartaching “I Dreamed a Dream” while sitting on the edge of boat; Samantha Bark’s Eponine belting out “On My Own” in a rainstorm in a dirty Paris slum – and feature the actors in extreme close-up. Even a rousing song like “Red and Black” is filmed in a crowded café. Only rarely does the camera pull back for an overview of Paris or a sweeping shot of a crowd along a barrier (at the very end during the reprise of “Do You Hear the People Sing?”).

The acting is a bit of a mixed bag. Hugh Jackman very ably carries the whole film, Anne Hathaway is luminescent, and Eddie Redmayne and Samantha Bark strong (and good singers at that). Sasha Baron Cohen and Helene Bonham Carter make a fine set of Thenardiers. But Amanda Seyfried is weak and Russell Crowe…

Ah yes: Russell Crowe. Give the man credit for trying. He stands up and tries to belt it out and emote with the rest of them, but he looks so uncomfortable. This, unfortunately, carries to his singing: he sounds so constricted, as if afraid his pants will split if he really belts it out. In his solo scenes, he does okay, but his weakness compared to the rest of the cast is highlighted in any scene in which he sings with them, particularly his fight with Hugh Jackman in the hospital.

It’s a long movie at 2:37 but it went by quickly, and even if I didn’t cry like much of the rest of the audience, I certainly experienced several “chill up the spine” moments: Hathaway’s heartbreak on “I Dreamed a Dream,” Valjean’s death. All in all, well worth the money.

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