Dir: Tom Hooper, 2013
Jean Valjean is a petty criminal released upon serving a nineteen-year prison sentence. After an encounter in which he rediscovers human kindness, Valjean sets about redeeming his past ways by living a good life. Still trailed by the unrelenting Inspector Javert, Valjean creates a new identity which leads him to a dispirited prostitute, her young daughter and the impending French Revolution.
Torrents of icy water cascade down upon a hundred shackled prisoners who are inch-by-inch tugging a grand warship into dock, all the while expressing their torment through song. Les Misérables does not get more epic than this nor does an opening ever more aptly describe a film. Director Tom Hooper is lugging a battle-weary man-of-war back into home territory and at 158 minutes, that’s exactly what Les Mis feels like. After the worldwide acclamation of The King’s Speech, Hooper’s restrictions are on showcase here as he confines the blockbuster visual ambition of Les Mis to either closed-off tripod shots or swooping, slanting Burtonesque vistas that exhibit bravado instead of capturing the essence of the film.
The performances are fine but the lacklustre script and the constant barrage of singing provide little room for character development and consequently quell whatever acting chops have been lured by the promises of Academy recognition. The problem is Hooper leaves no time for the emotion to sink in, jumping immediately from one grandiose lament to another without giving the audience anything to grab onto. This is made even worse by the second half’s descent into a bombastic fit of Oliver meets Romeo and Juliet. The Resistance (constructed entirely of Englishmen) resembles more of the opening of POTC3 than a band of revolting students, led by a charming Eddie Redmayne who accumulates the bulk of audience retention towards the long-awaited climax. Utterly the greatest faux pas comes from what is yet another vocal slip up by the menacingly turgid Russell Crowe, whose shouting in sing-song is regrettably illuminated by the tremendous range of Hugh Jackman, Anne Hathaway and everyone else. Stage presence be damned, Crowe should not have been in this picture.
Mind, some of the songs are both powerful and delightful and the potential is clearly there in the core story, the performances and the fantastic set design but the relentless symphonies fail to accent the material, proposing that even a minor but regular retreat into dialogue would round out the film in a wholesome and universal manner.
Ultimately, Les Misérables fails as a film due to its want for a better script – characters dying for no reason may work on the stage but on the silver screen, the audience deserves more. Despite its shortcomings, Les Mis will please the die-hard fans and succeeds as a weave of high-octane songs accompanied by a set of exquisitely-decorated yet glorified music videos.
★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆