Les Miserables (3 out of 5 Stars)
Directed by Tom Hooper (The King's Speech)
Written by William Nicholson (Gladiator, Nell, Shadowlands)
Starring: Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, Anne Hathaway, Eddie Redmayne, Amanda Seyfried, Samantha Barks, Sascha Baron Cohen, and Helena Bonham Carter
Making this project looked like a labor of love. The stage version is one of Les Miserables is one of the most popular, and most acclaimed stage shows of all time. The film was made into a live action film, without singing back in 1998 with Liam Neeson as the lead. Without music this film missed the mark in every way on achieving the Hugo's goal. When this project was announced, fans screamed with utter joy, and as the cast list came out, people exclaimed with even more joy. With such high expectations there was bound to be both excitement, and disappointment. This film is an entertaining ride, but there are also flaws in the direction, which prevent it from being truly great.
The film follows Jean Valjean (Jackman) who has been imprisoned for 19 years after stealing a loaf of bread. As the day of labor ends prison gaur Javert (Crowe) informs Jean Valjean he has been allowed parole, although he will always be seen as scum by others. When Valjean is finally taken in by a priest he robs him, but the priest grants mercy on him helping him transform his life. Years later Valjean is mayor of a small town under a different name. One day while a fight between some women breaks out a factory in his town and worker Fantine (Hathaway) is tossed out, and fired. Fantine eventually gets taken advantage of to support her daughter Cosette (Seyfried). The film centers on Valjean's escape from his past and being chased by Javert, along with Cosette.
Les Mis is based on the novel by Victor Hugo, which has been adapted numerous times in a variety of way. This version, with William Nicholson's screenplay (one of a dozens) is the most faithful, which helps hit all of these right notes. Nicholson's screenplay does not reinvent the wheel, neither hurting or adding to the film experience. Without giving too much of the plot away (if you have not seen the show) those are the basics to the film set to the second part of the French Revolution. The film balances the intense drama of love, war, mixed with the humor perpetuated by innkeepers Thenardier (Cohen) and his wife Madame Thernardier (Carter). The comedic helps balance out the heavy drama, which sometimes becomes to overwrought in the film.
Director Tom Hooper is the reason Les Mis becomes often overwrought. Hooper who directed the Best Picture winner The King's Speech (and won director for that film) was guilty of that same crime in his directorial style. In The King's Speech the direction hit hard so often at the characters emotions that you often lost the nuances of the story. With King's Speech solid acting saved the film (although I thought King's Speech was beyond over rated). Hooper hits hard at the emotional here as well.
Hooper hits the emotions so hard he wanted his actor's to sing live while listening to an ear piece of a piano being played. With this method actors are able to perform while singing rather than letting digitally enhanced voices to determine their actions on camera. In Hathaway's "I Dreamed a Dream" this method is beyond successful. Hathaway is brilliant with her performance stealing the film in her brief role; she emotes so well, and the camera focusing on her without cutting away works. I would add that this also works incredibly well in with Eponine's (Barkman) soliloquy "On My Own."
The problem here (for the most part) is the direction, and not the performances. Hooper strives to capture every emotion, sometimes forcing the emotion, without cutting away in every song. Hooper has not learned the lesson that this style can detract from the impact of the material. Hooper did not learn because he was not slapped on the wrist for his direction of King's Speech; he was rewarded with a Best Director Oscar. Hopefully he will heed these words for future projects. Hooper needs to let the performances speak for themselves.
As mentioned above Ms. Hathaway is the true standout of the film, namely because her version of "I Dreamed a Dream was one of the most poignant parts of the film, giving me chills. This was Hathaway's first time singing in film, although she has proven her talent on the Oscar stage. Jackman the film's lead has done Oklahoma, and The Boy from Oz. Barkman has done Les Mis in the anniversary version of the show. Seyfried did the pop musical film Mamma Mia. Cohen and Carter were both in the film version of Sweeney Todd. Redmayne is no stranger to the theatre winning for the play Red. Together these performers know how to bring a musical to life, and they inhabit their characters well.
Jackman proves he does his best while singing, carrying the emotional complexities of Jean Valjean well, along with the physical journey. After Jackman's tour de force performance, the true standouts were Redmayne, and Barker. Redmayne has started to get larger film roles, and his performance here has proven he is going to be a sought after man in the next few years. If you kept a dry eye during his "Empty Chairs" soliloquy you are heartless. The same can be said for Barkman's "On My Own" and her performance, a star on the rise. These two actors better get ready for a lot of job offers!
The main problem in the acting department was Crowe's Javert, who after two decades of playing "tough guys" came across as an incredibly whiney and weak Javert. Crowe is also another reason singing to the music failed. Javert's "Stars" misses every mark, and the intense relationship between Valjean and Javert is weakened.
While this has a significant effect on the film, the film was still entertaining. Many critics are going to say "I hate this film" and "this film was bad." Neither are true. While the film is not the best of the year, there are moments which bring you to sheer excitement. "Do You Hear the People Sing?" is the best number of the film, making you want to stand up raise a flag and join the cause. Even though Hooper hammers at the emotions too hard, I often got swept up with the ride, and let it take me away allowing the film to remain successful. While uneven Les Mis is an entertaining, and emotional experience saved by great performances (minus Russell Crowe).