As a musical-theater-loving spazz, before I even walked into the theater I had my review of Les Miserables all planned out as a rage comic highlighting my biggest feels and reaction GIFs of Adventure Time characters flailing.
I’m sad to say that after viewing the film that’s not really how it went.
For me, one of the most interesting things about seeing Les Mis was seeing The Hobbit a week before. Both are movies with an entrenched, rabid fan base and a general public that seem fairly curious about them. Both have a ton of material to draw from, are experimenting with new ways to make film and had the potential to be Oscar devouring monsters. But both kind of fell short.
You already know what I thought about The Hobbit—the 48 FPS was a failed experiment and their approach to the material was “why make one movie about a book when we could make three movies out of a book, a bunch of other stuff, and 90 minutes of wide shots of people hiking?!” Les Mis tries to go the other direction and suffers similarly because of it.
The stage production of Les Mis is already a reduction of the obscenely long Victor Hugo book by the same name. It spans decades and a whole country preoccupied with revolution. It has a huge cast of convicts, clergy, street urchins, revolutionaries, lawmen and everyone else in France in the 19th century. It’s a little overwhelming. And in response to the possibility that this buffet line of human misery would be too much for a bearable film to contain, they decided to cut down the material a little more, to focus more on the things that could be felt more completely rather than plowed through during a much longer, bloated, er, Hobbit-ish experience.
The first part of Les Mis soars because of this. The focus of the film is on paroled convict Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) and his nemesis the morally rigid Inspector Javert (Russell Crowe). Then Valjean meets Fantine, as played by Anne Hathaway, who promptly hijacks the movie and demands an Oscar. Her single shot, single take performance of the iconic “I Dreamed a Dream” is so moving, so powerful that scattered applause broke out in my screening when she finished. It’s also one of the high points of director Tom Hooper’s decision to have the cast sing all of their music live rather than lip-sync over a studio produced soundtrack like every other musical ever made. It completely transforms the way you experience the music and while it’s not always for the best, Hathaway’s scenes are absolutely some of the most successful parts of the movie.
Then things get a little confusing. The setting moves to Paris, the cast doubles in size and the complex political realities of the French Revolution don’t really have time to be properly explained. I understand why: to go into the emotional detail of all of the new characters and scenes that the film has established up until this point is just not possible. To make the film more palatable to the average viewer Hooper and his crew decide to keep the primary focus on the Valjean/Javert dynamic and their immediate circle of influence. However, the first thing that happens to achieve this is the paring down of an important scene between Marius and Eponine, in which you learn who they are and why you care. Because this hasn’t been established, their later scene over the sob-inducing “A Little Fall of Rain” is also cut short and lacks much of the emotional punch of the play. This is generally the case with every other character new in the second act of the film. This emotional and informative shortchanging comes to a head with the performance of “One More Day,” the song that leads into the intermission of the stage production in an orgiastic fireworks display of musical theater. It just doesn’t translate, even though it really should. The more intimate, emotional, delicate performances that make the first part of the film so engaging just don’t stand up to the demand for melodrama at its most bombastic.
Not all is lost, though. Even though the second half of the film does suffer from the filmmakers’ good intentions to keep things moving along there are still scenes that make the experience worthwhile. I’ve never been a hugh fan of Marius in the stage productions but Eddie Redmayne’s performance of “Empty Chairs and Empty Tables” was so gripping and devastating it felt like the first time I’d ever heard the song.
Overall the movie functions as a supplement to the stage production better than a standalone film. Seeing the entire stage production makes the political situation and character relationships make much more sense, but seeing the dirty, diseased, growing masses of the poor in the film give a much better sense of urgency behind the revolution than the stage ever could. And while, bless his heart, Crowe just doesn’t have the vocal force to embody the Javert we wanted, his much more nuanced, contemplative version of the Inspector makes far more sense to me on film than it ever has on stage. While it’s hard to recommend a film to a casual viewer that’s such a taxing, at times grating ordeal to sit through, it’s not hard to recommend the same film that doesn’t always rise to the level it aspires to but contains a number of bits and pieces that are tremendous accomplishments.