Critical Confabulations

a theatre, film & pop culture review

Film Review: Les Misérables

Les Misérables is just that: an utterly miserable moviegoing experience thanks to Tom Hooper’s incompetence.

les-misI didn’t think it was possible to hate director Mr. Hooper’s latest work as much as I despised his last (and oh! how I despised it!), but turns out it’s more than possible.

We all know the story and the epically popular megamusical it’s based on, but just in case you’ve been stuck under a rock for, oh, a century and a half, let’s recap: In 1862, French novelist Victor Hugo wrote the epic tome Les Misérables. Widely considered one of the greatest novels of the nineteenth century, it’s a dry read about the entire history of France that consists of an extraordinary number of subplots and hundreds of one-dimensional characters who pop up for a scene or two each, never to be heard from again. It’s quite maddening, actually.

Glory be, then, to Monsieurs Schönberg and Boublil for creating one of the most delightful and guiltiest of musical pleasures of all time! They cut out all the God stuff (zzzzzz) and trimmed so much of the book’s fat (Parisian architectural history, moral philosophy, discussion of the pros and — mostly — cons of the monarchy) that, even with the remaining zillion characters that somehow didn’t get guillotined, the musical became a simple story about a simple guy who stole a loaf of bread, got thrown in the brink for 19 years, became an upstanding citizen upon his release but was still stalked by an evil police inspector, rescued a prostitute’s kid from a couple of kleptomaniac losers, and then died, declaring “to love another person is to see the face of Gooooooooood!” And, naturally, this all occurs in the foreground of a little-known event called the French Revolution and with a couple of swoon-worthy love stories thrown in for good measure. In other words: this is the quintessential 1980s Broadway megamusical slash pop opera (no talking, all singing!) replete with teary ballads, soaring anthems, and dancing prostitutes, and it all goes down on a revolving stage (because… it can!). You laugh, weep, perhaps even hum along. It’s an absolute joy.

Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of this latest adaptation. There are some ok moments in the film, though, thanks to a (partially) hardworking cast. By far the most dedicated, Anne Hathaway, as the single-mom-prostitute Fantine, emotes the shit out of her 20 minutes on screen, all tear-streaked cheeks and vein-popping vocal strains in her big my-life-is-an-epic-disappointment number, “I Dreamed a Dream.” She’s not the best singer in the world, but she gets the job done, and apparently that’s enough to get you some major Oscar buzz (I’ll eat my shirt if she wins). Everyone’s favorite triple threat — and sometimes Broadway star — Hugh Jackman also gives his all to the rather boring lead role of Valjean. With solid vocals, Jackman shows necessary restraint in this saintly role, even if the highs of the cruelly falsetto “Bring Him Home” are a little shaky. Everyone else is fine, if unexciting, with one exception (we’ll get to him in a minute), and the single vocal standout is Aaron Tveit who, hey, has actually been in a musical or two! (Imagine that, Hollywood, imagine that.) Too bad he’s relegated to the thanklessly small role of revolutionary Enjolras. But he does what he can, all smoldering looks, fierce rebellion, and gorgeous voice. Hell, I’d get behind the barricade if he sang-asked me to.


Anne Hathaway gets her emoting on as prostitute Fantine

And then there’s Russell Crowe, who one would imagine in a non-musical adaptation would actually be quite good as the dogged inspector Javert. Then again, maybe not, because it’s not just the vocals that trip him up — and, oh man, they trip him up — but Mr. Crowe is either embarrassed to be in a musical or doesn’t think much of this particular one; he is visibly uncomfortable onscreen. The man simply doesn’t act: blank stare, monotone (his version of singing), and a body so incredibly stiff that it’s a wonder he’s able to run after Valjean for years and years like he does. His is one of those performances so bad that we, the audience, are painfully embarrassed for him.

But considering who directed this drably colored, claustrophobic bore, it shouldn’t be a surprise that this film showcases no one’s best work. Everyone’s favorite emotional manipulator (and, god help us, Oscar winner), Tom Hooper, and his best cinematographer bud, Danny Cohen, literally shoved a camera in each actor’s face, in each scene. No wonder Hathaway came off so melodramatically; how could she not when those wide, watery eyes were this close to the camera lens every minute of every take? It’s hard to imagine that this, erm, proximity promotes a safe and encouraging environment for actors, but to top it off, Hooper also makes them sing! Live! Whilst acting! (What have they been doing on Broadway all these years? Certainly not that for 8 shows per week.) Considering that nearly all the actors in this film aren’t singers, it’s like throwing Katie Holmes on stage for the first (and second) time and asking her to project properly; the point being that it’s not going to end well.

With cameras swooping in and out, jerking around like the nauseating handhelds in The Blair Witch Project, the result of such invasive intimacy is an unrelenting claustrophobia — and an extreme annoyance. Surely Paco Delgado’s costumes are beautifully torn rags, but who really knows since we never get to see anyone below the shoulders. Too much screen time is given to nasty yellowed snaggleteeth (well done, by the way, Chris Lyons), and, clearly, much effort was expelled on streaking the dirt makeup just so across everyone but Amanda Seyfried’s perfectly pale porcelain cheeks.

When the Hoops does pan out to take in more than dilated pupils and quivering lips, what greets us are not the visual wonders of spectacular musicals, but scenes that are blatantly filmed on sound stages and obviously, and laughably, computer-generated. During the opening number, “Look Down,” in which Hugh Jackman, under a swirling grey sky, helps row a massive ship through crashing CGI waves whilst heaving a ridiculously huge — and hugely and ridiculously symbolic — wooden pole over his shoulder, I wondered: Could Jackman’s Valjean bear the sins of this entire, preposterous film?

Not a chance, miserable ones. Not a chance.

Les Misérables
Opened on December 25, 2012 nationwide.

Directed by Tom Hooper; written by William Nicholson, Alain Boublil, Claude-Michel Schönberg and Herbert Kretzmer; based on the novel by Victor Hugo and the stage musical by Mr. Boublil and Mr. Schönberg; music by Mr. Schönberg; lyrics by Mr. Kretzmer; director of photography, Danny Cohen; edited by Melanie Ann Oliver and Chris Dickens; production design by Eve Stewart; costumes by Paco Delgado; produced by Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner, Debra Hayward and Cameron Mackintosh; released by Universal Pictures. Running time: 2 hours 37 minutes.

WITH: Hugh Jackman (Jean Valjean), Russell Crowe (Javert), Anne Hathaway (Fantine), Amanda Seyfried (Cosette), Eddie Redmayne (Marius), Samantha Barks (Éponine), Helena Bonham Carter (Madame Thénardier) and Sacha Baron Cohen (Thénardier).


10 comments on “Film Review: Les Misérables

  1. Mr Rumsey
    January 3, 2013

    An interesting review 🙂
    I haven’t seen the film yet, but as a big fan of the musical I hope that I end up liking it more than you did! I’ve heard such mixed reports of this film; some love it to an insane degree, others are slamming it. I don ‘t really know what to think!


    • Julie
      January 3, 2013

      I’m a huge fan of the musical too, just not this adaptation. But I certainly hope you have a better time than I did. Thanks for stopping by!


  2. A-Ron
    January 3, 2013

    Sasha Stone on Awards Daily said the other day that “there are a lot of problems with Les Mis, but the singing isn’t one of them.” And all I could think was: have you LISTENED to music EVER in your LIFE?

    I obviously liked Crowe more than you did, but I think it’s because I disliked Jackman so very much that I simply could not think straight about anything. It isn’t only “Bring Him Home” that is a disaster…


    • Julie
      January 3, 2013

      Sasha Stone is obviously tone deaf.

      I’m not sure what problems you see with Jackman… his performance wasn’t exactly thrilling, but then again, his is not the most exciting role in the show.


  3. nance
    January 25, 2013

    Just saw it the other day. Interesting write up, Jules. (I kinda agree with you.)
    I thought some of the singing was like listening to “fingernails on a chalkboard.” I guess the professionals wouldn’t be interested in a movie so they got the best they could. I thought some of the close-ups were distracting.


    • Julie
      January 26, 2013

      Nance, trust me: If actual musical performers were approached about performing in this film, they would’ve jumped at the chance. Unfortunately, Hollywood only wants stars (i.e.. $$) and so our ears suffer in consequence.


  4. Ellen
    February 28, 2013

    I found your review through a search engine after typing in “Amanda Seyfried eyes dilated.” You offer an interesting perspective to the film, and although I did enjoy it a lot, I couldn’t disagree with you on anything here. Your description of Russell Crowe’s performance is spot-on. Did you notice that Seyfried’s pupils were ALWAYS dilated? That drove me crazy! ….did you eat your shirt, by the way?


    • Julie
      February 28, 2013

      Hilarious search (result). I did not notice Seyfried’s eyes in particular — only the superfluous amount of close-ups used in the film — but now I’m sure I won’t be able to look at her without thinking that. And my shirt was quite tasty 🙂 Thanks for stopping by and commenting!


  5. Joe R.
    September 11, 2013

    Believe it or not, I just stumbled upon this review also after googling “Cosette eyes dilated”, which was a result of watching the movie. Too funny!
    Regarding your review, I agree with you for the most part. I also found the parsing of Gavroche’s part to be distracting. And there was another part that didn’t follow the traditional musical…the song “Red and Black” was not followed by “Do you hear the people sing”. As someone who has seen the musical live about 5 times, and owns the 10th and 25th anniversary versions on DVD, a “tilt” in my brain happened there. Anyway, thanks for the review.


    • Julie
      September 13, 2013

      You’re right: the movie messed up the musical in all sorts of ways, so it didn’t surprise me that they would alter the song order for no real reason. Hollywood… what are you gonna do? Thanks for your comment!


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This entry was posted on January 3, 2013 by in Film, Film Reviews, Musical and tagged , , , , , , .



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