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Les Misérables (Universal, PG-13)

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film les-mis_75No sooner have you settled into one mode of perception, the film will jerk you right out of it, for no good reason, and certainly not to make any kind of artistic statement.

 

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Like its source material, Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boubil’s musical version of Les Misérables doesn’t do things in a small way. That’s both good and bad—good, because when the show’s artistic quality matches its ambitions, the effect is truly grand. Bad because when it doesn’t, the result is simply grandiose and tiresome.

Both qualities are on display in Tom Hooper’s film adaptation of Les Misérables—when it works it really works and when it flops, it really flops—so your ability to sit through 160 minutes of it without fidgeting right out of your chair depends on your ability to overlook the bad and enjoy the good.

Hooper’s opening sequence is brilliant. After a brief orientation via title card (the story starts 26 years after the French Revolution, guys), a French flag seemingly dissolves into turbulent waters and the camera swoops over a ruined ship and down to a crew of hapless prisoners who attempt to haul it manually back into port. The camera lingers on a barely recognizable Hugh Jackman (as Jean Valjean) before continuing up an embankment to a slightly more recognizable Russell Crowe (as Inspector Javert), observing it all like some imperial potentate. The music is dramatic and the lyrics repetitive, matching the men’s task, and this scene sets up the mythic quality of the story and the conflict between the two primary characters beautifully.

Then Javert opens his mouth and starts delivering exposition in a sort of recitation, and we’re in the land of the ridiculous. It’s not just that Crowe is not a great singer; it’s also that he’s already spoken, and doesn’t do anything to convince us that he has a reason for suddenly half-singing these words. Suddenly, everything that looked so real a minute ago looks fake, and you’re caught somewhere between the theatrical and cinematic aspects of this film. That’s an experience you will have frequently throughout this film—no sooner have you settled into one mode of perception, the film will jerk you right out of it, for no good reason, and certainly not to make any kind of artistic statement.

By the way, I’m not objecting to characters breaking into song, or semi-song, when they would normally speak. That’s a convention familiar to everyone who attends musicals or the opera. The point is that the actor has to sell it. We know how to suspend our disbelief, but that doesn’t mean we will buy everything set before us. Jackman successfully manages this kind of transition over and over, but it’s a skill that Crowe and some of the other cast members have not mastered, and it really disrupts the experience of watching Les Misérables.

I have a feeling that most of the fans of the stage version of Les Misérables (and there are many—the original London production has run for over 10,000 performances and counting, and the original Broadway production ran for over 6,600 performances) won’t have such a problem with this shifting among modes of presentation. For someone sensitive to the arts of storytelling on film, however, it may drive you crazy.

The best point about Les Misérables is how well the big, timeless themes—among them poverty, revenge, forgiveness, charity, and love—come across in the film. Among the performers, Jackman is splendid throughout, and makes a good argument for hiring people who have mastered the art of vocal performance when you’re making a film of a musical and making a big deal about the performers singing live. Anne Hathaway delivers a dramatic performance as Fantine (although the Oscar talk is a bit overblown—the script just doesn’t give her that much to do), and does an excellent job on “I Dreamed a Dream,” one of the show’s anthems. Samantha Barks is quite credible as Eponine (who sings another of the show’s greatest hits, “On My Own”) and Eddie Redmayne is excellent as Marius (he gets to sing “Empty Chairs and Empty Tables”).

On the other hand, the shameless mugging of Sacha Baron-Cohen and Helena Bonham-Carter as Thénardier and his wife gets old really fast, not a good thing in a movie as long as this one. Isabelle Allen and Amanda Seyfried are both visually striking as the young and teenaged Cosettes, respectively, but Seyfried is a poor match for the vocal demands of her role.

That’s sort of how it is with Les Misérables. You can say the glass is half full, or that it’s half empty, depending on the level of forbearance you bring to the project (actually, for me it’s more like 40% full, but then I’m not a huge fan of the stage musical). Enjoyment requires a determinedly half-full attitude: Take pleasure in what’s good and don’t worry about the rest. If you can’t do that, this may be the longest almost-three-hours of your life. | Sarah Boslaugh

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