The classical world famous epic musical gets the feature film treatment in a mostly entertaining, mostly greatly cast, fantastically directed film, even if some aspects aren’t able to please everyone given such a transition; such attempts are understandably difficult due to normal film dynamics audiences are accustomed to can’t help but be inevitably be sacrificed. Still, such an opera opens doors of creativity which are able to present emotions and settings that simply aren’t as easy in a regular film. Fortunately, due to great direction, Les Miserables uses these unique elements well.
Les Mis takes place during the French Revolution of the 19th century, and follows the story of a slave prisoner Jean Valjean, played by Hugh Jackman, and the tyrannical officer Javert, played by Russell Crowe. Right off the bat, Crowe has received some unfair criticism of his performance and singing voice, which I personally believed to be mostly decent, even though his lower octave vocal work can come off as a bit plain and flat in sections. Anyway, to continue, Jackman’s character struggles to get by as a homeless young man until helped by a local priest, then some years later is established as the town mayor with a compassionate heart for the needy (he achieves mayor by methods we don’t get to see, which is ok), and soon comes across Crowe’s character once again, to eventually lead to more tension between the two. We then are introduced to Fantine, who is a poor peasant worker that is fired from her job and must turn to prostitution to survive and aid her young daughter, Cosette. Fantine is played absolutely brilliantly by Anne Hathaway, and is easily the greatest performer of this epic. Valjean (Jackman) then takes Fantine under his wing, but must now hide his identity from Javert (Crowe) due to years earlier breaking his parole. He agrees to care for the young daughter and we are then transported years later when Cosette is around 18 years old; the first street battles of the revolution are then played out as we meet new characters who take a significant part in the Cosette’s life, yet we still have Javert following Valjean.
As many will already know, the entire story is played out as an opera, where song is the means of telling the story, and all the actors perform their own parts. There are very few plain talking transition sections but they don’t last more than a few lines. Many may first look down on this aspect and unfortunately labeled it as a “chick flick,” or too hard to follow, but this would be a mistake, as the film’s plot is not as convoluted as many may first assume, and taken as a piece of great filmmaking and musical art, there is much to be had.
Initially, the film begins very well as we are introduced to the poor suffering peasants of France and perspective lives. Direction during approximately this first hour has a great appeal and is what makes this entire segment work, as there are many darker scenes, close-up and angled shots that give the atmosphere a jerked yet intriguingly somber mood. I would say that if it weren’t for this form of direction the characterization of these people would have been mostly lost. Seeing such close-up shots lets the audience feel their pain and sorrow all the more, and the angled shots subtly tells us how broken their lives really are. Given this is a musical, these unique ideas are what is necessary for this play to transition well to film. Other subtle filmmaking decisions play extremely well, and the songs are mostly all catchy, fun even if sometimes saddening. The climax to this first act takes place in Madam Thenardier’s bordello (Thenardier played by Helen Bonham Carter, whose performance is mostly ok but ultimately forgettable). The end of this seductively twisted scene gives us a solo act by Hathaway, which is easily the best singing performance and beautifully directed scene of the entire film – if you remember nothing from Les Mis, you WILL remember Hathaway’s final song. This one performance is worth the entire price of admission, it was such a heartbreak that Hathaway’s part in this film was so small.
The second half of the film is where things take a somewhat less interesting turn. The movie lightens up and there are some cute comedic portions thrown in, even if the lead Thenardier, played by Sasha Baron Cohen, feels a bit miscast. Now with Cosette being a somewhat affluent young adult (remember, Valjean raises her and was mayor, thus, wealthier), we are given a fairly overly long and uninteresting introduction to a strange love triangle she finds herself in, with a young man, Marius, who is part of the revolution fighting for the poor oppressed; another poor girl, Eponine, is the third part of this triangle, who we are told grew up with Cosette. This portion of the second half is where things don’t really pick up until the end, because the aspects of this love triangle don’t really make much sense, and given that it’s a musical, it makes it even harder for audiences to really feel for characters who are singing. This is why I mentioned earlier that some aspects of modern filmmaking need to be sacrificed. In this case, it is about explanation of plot and general characterization and character motivation. On a live stage, this part of the film perhaps comes out better because the environment helps these characters more appealing, but the same simply cannot be done in regular film, especially when we don’t see these new character’s pasts. The film during this portion almost feels like it doesn’t know how to tell us about these characters so simply elongates this scene with some blander songs, and flatter scenery. Those jagged camera work ideas and dark atmosphere are gone as now we just get normal directional work, which makes sense considering this second act is no longer about suffering peasants, so such dynamics would not fit the characters. Still, the audience is left missing and wanting to see more of Hathaway and gang as before. Cosette’s character is also almost never focused on, therefore we never really get to know her as an adult. Jackman and Crowe, although continuing their places and characters, don’t grip us as they did from that better first act.
The film continues and although the revolution battle scenes bring some appreciated energy, it is safe to say that overall we get less character relatability, flatter songs, and plainer direction. The scope of the film does grow though, and we get a better sense of what is really going on in greater France, we just wish we could’ve done so with more interesting characters. While I do appreciate that Eponine’s character, played by Samantha Barks, who ALSO played the part in the live broadway musical is here, I can only guess that due to the differentiation of stage and silver screen, the character may just work better on stage. Now although it does sound like I really disliked the second act, the movie still tries hard, and even though things aren’t as good as before, they are still done well, and the film does continue to entertain (mostly after the uninteresting love triangle build-up ends). The songs it should be mentioned are really a case of subjectivity; some may like the songs that others find bland, but since the film could not rewrite the real songs from the live play, my telling that lots of these second act songs are blander should perhaps be taken with a grain of salt.
Once things feel like they are over, we get our climax with Jackman’s and Crowe’s characters, but to some may feel like it ends cheaply, not to also mention taking too long to just end. When the very last few scenes of the film comes, I began to realize that a good 10 minutes could have been cut from this, and also wondered why people claimed to have cried at all during the film, because overall I feel like nobody besides Crowe and Jackman themselves were featured long or deeply enough for anyone to really care about their circumstances, no matter how sad they may have tried to be depicted. Yet, a great refresher was the very last few minutes of the film which was satisfyingly epic to say the least (I could then understand better why some people would have cried). The film ends the way a play would, and even though you may have enjoyed the first half over the second, you still may find yourself wanting to stand up and clap.
In the end, I would have to say that I did enjoy and appreciate Les Mis, despite its flaws. Many critics claimed that the film jumped around much and things weren’t as cohesive as they should have been. This is simply untrue as the story does do a good job at pacing the character introductions as well as their circumstances. For those who only saw this in theaters, i would recommend seeing this on video with the subtitles turned on. Watching the film I did just that, and felt I was better able to follow the story and get more from the characters. I believe this is not simply a film that is an acquired taste or only good for people who are into musicals or operas; again, by watching the film with subtitles, not only does one get to enjoy the songs (at least the ones that are good), but also follow a fairly straightforward story that they may have missed in theaters. The songs were mostly good and there is one tune in particular that repeats and will most likely stick in your head after the credits roll. Performances were done well, even if some actors will be better remembered than others (specifically, Jackman and Hathaway). I mostly wish that more of the movie was done like the first act of the film, yet would enjoy to view this again because the songs do keep things entertaining, as well as give more personality to the settings themselves. Les Mis would be more greatly appreciated by those who do have a knowledgeable eye and ear for filmmaking and music as an artform, and not just a way to entertain yourself for 2 hours. Yet, I would not even say this is an artfilm or even so much of a period piece. I would recommend giving this a try for anyone who is open-minded enough to get out of their comfort zone, as there is much good here. I’m glad I purchased this.
On a technical level, the best thing about the blu-ray is the sound quality. Given that it’s a musical, things need to sound well, and I am happy to say that things could not have been more perfectly balanced. Songs, instrumentation, vocals, never get in the way of sound effects, or vice versa. Everything comes off as crystal clear, and it only helps the film be more easily enjoyed. Visually, I did feel that although darker scenes showed a great amount of detail, in more colorful daytime scenes, colors at times were a bit too bright and contrast was a tad on the plainer side. It was nothing extreme but perhaps I’m just being picky.
There are some good behind-the-scenes extras on the blu-ray that are not on the dvd, so as always, I recommend getting the blu-ray copy if you can. There is a good amount so it is definitely worth the full purchase price.
So Les Mis may have a few flaws that keep it from being the spellbinding epic it was perhaps originally slated to be on paper; but the film tries very hard to do so, and what it does get right, is great. There are some great ideas here that make for a mostly wholly entertaining film, even if you wish you could’ve felt for the characters more. A musical like 2002’s ‘Chicago’ did a better job of characterization, but that was only because regular talking and songs were broken up into separate sections, yet with Les Mis, it would make the stage transition harder due to the ENTIRE film’s plot being done only through song. The good news is that the film is mostly successful. I would more recommend this for more mature and sophisticated film goers, and perhaps not so much to those who like their films straightforward and typical. I liked it, didn’t love it, but did love a few nitpicked aspects (namely, Hathaway, and directional ideas). I give this 3 octaves out of 4.