“Les Misérables” is a curious musical film with all substance and no style. Inside its epic story, there lies the emotional power to grip you and then sweep you to the finale as the movie struggles through its 2 1/2 hours of running time, and its almost relentless parade of melodramatic songs keeps penetrating through the emotional barricade at your eardrums even when you surrender to it, but the movie is also hampered by its questionable visual approach to the source material as well as its inherent narrative flaws apparently shown here and there in the screenplay. Fortunately, the substance compensates for the flawed(or absent) style to some degrees through its undeniable power, but I also recognize that there are good reasons why some critics do not like it.
Unlike many of you, I am not very familiar with the musical play adapted from Victor Hugo’s 1862 classic novel with the same name, although I have heard about lots of good words about it while never having the chance to listen to its recordings or watch it on the stage. After the first performance in Paris in 1980, the original French musical play was later successfully adapted into the English version for the West End and Broadway productions, and it was one of the famous smash hits in the 1980s along with “Cats”, “Miss Saigon”, and “The Phantom of the Opera”. Though more than 30 years have passed since its original performance, it remains as a popular musical play thanks to good music and memorable songs, and, as far as I remember, they have also put it on the stage in South Korea several times recently.
Despite its popularity, “Les Misérables” was not adapted into a film version for quite a long time mainly because it is a dense sung-through musical play packed with more than 40 songs from the prologue to the finale. While that aspect makes it pretty hard to adapt it into a coherent and faithful film version, the musical also has its own adaptation problems including its choppy narrative. After all, they tried to condense Hugo’s magnum opus into one single musical play, didn’t they?
Rather than dealing with these problems and others in his story, the director Tom Hopper, who won an Oscar for his previous film “The King’s Speech”(2010), stuck to the wall-to-wall musical narrative just like Alan Parker did in “Evita”(1996). As soon as one song is over, here comes another song immediately, and this pattern rapidly goes on and on with no particular change, and the movie never looks back until it arrives at the rousing closing song performed by full company.
A very good example is shown right from its beginning, where everything is delivered quickly within around 15 minutes to show how Jean Valjean(Hugh Jackman) decides to lead a new life and leave behind his dark past. During the big opening number(“Work Song”), Valjean is finally released under the supervision of a severe policeman Javert(Russell Crowe) after enduring 19 years of labor sentence just because he stole bread for his starving family and subsequently tried to escape. The quick progression of musical montage shows how harshly Valjean is treated by others as an ex-convict until he arrives at the residence of a kind bishop(played by Colm Wilkinson, who played Valjean in the West End and Broadway productions), whose merciful act inspires Valjean to search for redemption and, of course, sing another song(“What Have I Done?”).
This relentless musical narrative could have been very successful, but the movie simultaneously succeeds and fails as it forcefully marches on its plot with firm conviction like the French army in the film. Except when the camera makes its obligatory sweeping movement on the screen, the camerawork in the film feels static and, sometimes, quite suffocating. Especially when Jackman and his co-performers are singing, the movie mostly looks only at the actors, not the backgrounds, so I felt the constant urge to see what’s outside the screen even though I was entertained by the songs. I must say its production design and costumes are excellent as demanded, and they will probably be Oscar-nominated in the next year, but I doubt whether they will be able to win Oscar, considering that its problematic editing and cinematography leave little space for appreciating the crew’s efforts.
However, even when the movie is bound by these flaws, the dramatic power from the music and songs somehow keeps its rickety story rolling as the movie hurriedly juggles the songs and the characters. Even though he tries to become a new man, Valjean cannot possibly escape from the watchful eyes of Javert thanks to the endless coincidences observed in the 19th European novels, and he continues to hide along with Cosette(Isabelle Allen), a young girl who comes to be taken care of by him after the tragic demise of her poor mother Fantine(Anne Hathaway). Hathaway appears briefly in this big movie, but she makes her character’s downward plight hauntingly heartbreaking and delivers her sad songs as well as she can do during her short appearance.
Many years have quickly passed while so many things happen along with so many songs, and Cosette, now played by Amanda Seyfried, becomes a young Parisian girl attracted to a young idealistic revolutionary Marius(Eddie Redmayne). Marius and his comrades later attempt a revolution against the French government, and the movie manages to generate excitement and passion as most of the characters including Valjean are being swept by a big historical event.
While the movie becomes messy and choppy frequently, the actors in the film seldom lose their positions. They were tasked with a difficult job of establishing their characters while singing well enough to engage us right in front of the camera, and most of them are more than adequate. Hugh Jackman is a dependable leading man for musical film, and Anne Hathaway deserves to run in the current Oscar race because of her showstopper moment with “I Dreamed Dream”. Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter are fun as a nasty comic relief duo who have no qualm about exploiting not only Fantine and Cosette but also others in their sight, and Samantha Barks is poignant as their ill-fated daughter Éponine, a low-life girl who has carried a torch for Marius but has to admit sorrowfully that he will never be her man. While Amanda Seyfried and Eddie Redmayne look less distinctive compared to others as a young innocent couple in love(it’s not their fault), Russell Crowe seriously lacks the menace and obsession of his character in his singing despite his tough guy persona, but at least he is not as disastrous as Pierce Brosnan in “Momma Mia!”(2008).
It goes without saying that “Les Misérables” is not a successful musical film in visual aspects, but it is one of more heartfelt versions among many, many adaptations of Victor Hugo’s novel(there have been at least 24 adaptations since 1913). Many memorable moments in Hugo’s novel usually come from the internal struggles and conflicts inside Valjean and others, and the songs in the musical play are the effective tools to draw up their agonies and dilemmas inside their hearts and then powerfully amplify them in front of our eyes and ears, and the movie partially works because of that strength.
Nevertheless, though my heart was stimulated by its content more than I expected, my logical brain still reminds me that it could be more visually engrossing or visceral on its surface if it had been handled by a more experienced director like, say, Alan Parker. Now I feel as conflicted as Javert before his exit, but I don’t think I will have to throw myself into the Seine River just because I give the movie 3 star instead of 2.5 stars.