If I had to pick three words to describe Tom Hooper’s filmic take on the musical version of Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables they would be vast, sprawling and overblown – though such a simplistic review would be to do it a disservice as, much like the story, there are many layers to this film.
Before I get into it though, I thought I’d make it clear that, as well as movies, I am something of a fan of musicals and musical theatre too, though that maybe hasn’t come across on this site so far… so I was certainly open-minded to all aspects of what I was going to experience coming into this movie.
The story itself is one I was not familiar with and it, loosely, follows the tale of an ex-convict in early 1800s France, Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman), and his quest for repentance through his charitable work, specifically with Fantine (Anne Hathaway), Cosette (Amanda Seyfried) and Marius (Eddie Redmayne).
On top of this we also get the story of the June Revolution of 1832 and the tale of Javert’s (Russel Crowe) quest to bring Jean Valjean to justice and Cosette’s former guardians (Helena Bonham-Carter and Sacha Baron-Cohen) trying to get money from whoever they can.
This multitude of threads is where I think the movie falls down, though it’s not entirely the films fault, as, just as we have got used to Jean Valjean as our hero and are following his story things cut 8 years into the future and a whole bunch of new characters are introduced, as well as the situation building towards revolution.
This left the story feeling somewhat imbalanced and, while it comes back round in the end to Valjean and Javert, there is a period in the middle where their story, which has anchored the first act, becomes almost inconsequential while a revolutionary tale is told – in any other movie these would be two separate films, but here they combined in a way that left me having trouble grasping any sense of feeling in any of the characters, at least until it reverted to Javert and Valjean who suddenly brought emotion back into things in their climactic scenes.
My other major issue was the film’s sense of reality. This is always something a musical is going to struggle with, what with everyone bursting into song every couple of minutes, but, from the off, Les Misérables seems to set its stall as being a more realistically placed musical with the lack of dance numbers and a lot of ‘spoken’ sung sections and a frankly epic set of opening scenes with slaves in a dry dock followed by Valjean up a mountain in rural France.
This sense was destroyed though once the seemingly comic relief of Bonham-Carter and Baron-Cohen’s characters were introduced and, as they kept popping up, they kept spoiling all the work that been put in and, for the most part were neither funny nor did enough to move the story along to really be of any worth.
In terms of production as you’d expect from a mega-budget movie production the sets are fantastic with Paris really coming to life when we get to see its expanse – it reminded somewhat of how I’d always pictured Ankh-Morpork – and the dry dock in the opening sequence being a truly mind-blowing combination of special effects and location work. However, there are points where the camera work focusing too much of close-ups of the actors loses some of this sense of epic location and, at times, has a feel of The Surprising Adventures of Sir Digby Chicken Caeser the musical.
All this sounds like I’m on a bit of a downer about Les Misérables, but that isn’t entirely true.
Beyond all I’ve said so far the performances are pretty much all excellent with Hugh Jackman, Anne Hathaway and newcomer Daniel Huttlestone (as Gavroche) all standing out particularly and only Russel Crowe being a bit wobbly in places vocally speaking, but his final scene in the film really over powers any previous issues as he gives us very effective and effecting dénouement to his tale.
That and, in many places, the camera work is excellent and takes the place of big dance numbers to lead us through songs with the performers, all of whom were singing live on set rather than being pre-recorded in a studio which gives the performances a much greater sense of immediacy than in many other musicals.
In the end Les Misérables is far from perfect, and is surely a bit overlong, but is certainly worth watching as well for its sense of style and the performances on offer.
And, well because why not and so you know what I’m getting at, here’s a bit of Sir Digby Chicken Caeser…