It is a fairly accepted story that when the sculptor, Auguste Rodin wanted to sculpt Victor Hugo, Hugo agreed, but demanded Rodin come to his house, and he refused to pose for him. This prompted Rodin to frantically sketch the poet and attempt to capture his essence. This interpretation of Victor Hugo worked out and resulted in some famous sketches, busts and sculptures. It also worked out in 1985 when Claude-Michel Schönberg interpreted Hugo’s masterpiece Les Misérables into a global musical sensation. Now, as 2012 draws to a close, another interpretation of Hugo’s Les Misérables has been released. Director Tom Hooper follows his best picture Oscar winning film The Kings Speech with the first ever film adaptation of the 1985 musical Les Misérables. Unfortunately, Tom Hooper is no Rodin.
Les Misérables (never to be referred to as “Lay Miz” in this review) is set during the French Revolution and follows the trials of ex-prisoner Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) over a seventeen year period. During that time, Valjean experiences the endurance and integrity of the human spirit as he relentlessly sacrifices his wellbeing for the good of his adopted daughter, Cosette (Amanda Seyfried). Much of Hugo’s original Romantic vision is simplified both for stage and for screen. All versions, however, do condemn the corruption of society as its technological advances inspire greed that leads to abuse of the working class, desperation, increases in criminal activity, and a justifiable uprising. Most evocative of this progression of devastation is the story of Fantine (Anne Hathaway), who when fired from her low-paying factory job is forced to sell her teeth, hair, and body to support her daughter. Hathaway has received praise and criticism for her performance as Fantine. However, the fact remains that while not a traditional Broadway-style singer, what Hathaway lacks in technical singing ability, she more than makes up for in emotional presence. Her rendition of “I Dreamed a Dream” is heartbreaking and touching.
While Hathaway performs her role very well, there truly is not enough here to warrant too much attention. Hugh Jackman, on the other hand, turns out a career defining performance that alone makes Les Misérables worth the price of admission. This is Jackman’s movie in every single way. Les Misérables is a “sung-through” musical, which means there is no spoken dialogue; all conversations and speeches are sung. This can prove a challenge for many actors, yet Jackman accomplishes this task expertly with every bit of rawness necessary. Jackman is so good in fact, that he makes it easier to overlook the film’s two most glaring faults: its direction and Russell Crowe.
Tom Hooper has directed a very standard looking and staged feeling musical here. His actors save the film, which in essence is stylistically a spliced together collection of absurdly close-up one shots that go on for several minutes without cutting. To call this minimalism would be vastly understating it. While it can be argued that more aggressive direction may compete with the actors’ performances, it is impossible to look back on the film after viewing it and not feel like an opportunity was missed to make it something more. He does offer a glimpse of creativity with the film’s opening scene as well as his staging of the comic relief number, “Master of the House,” expertly casting Sasha Baron Cohen as Thenardier and Helena Bonhem Carter as his wife.
Additionally, Russell Crowe, who plays Inspector Javert, simply can not hold his own as the film’s second lead. It is painstakingly obvious how hard he is trying, and this perceptibility is deeply distracting. Crowe does not ruin the film, however since the heart wrenching story and incredible music make up for much of the film’s shortcomings. “One Day More” is arguably the film’s most powerful song, and it is sure to stick with audience members well after the credits roll. At the end of the day, Les Misérables is mostly effective, especially to original fans of the musical. Nevertheless, it is mostly an underwhelming film, with occasional glimmers of substance, all of which are a consequence of Hugh Jackman’s powerhouse performance. B-