Verisimilitude. That clearly was what Tom Hooper (of “The King’s Speech” fame) was going for in this adaptation of the long running play, “Les Miserables”. That’s why he made the wise decision to have his actors actually act their songs instead of miming pre-recorded versions. For that has always been an issue in so many movie musicals – all drama comes to a stop until the number is over with. In this version, which is almost all sung, Hooper keeps the integrity of the narrative by insisting that his actors ‘perform live’ as it were.
And there are indeed some fine performances. Hugh Jackman was a good choice as the long-suffering lead, Jean Valjeun. Having stunned New Yorkers a few years ago with his tour de force performance in “The Boy From Oz”, we knew he could belt out a number; and he does that to great effect here. Russell Crowe’s Javert, Jean Valjeun’s dogged nemesis, gives us compellingly heartless run-by-the-book policeman. Who knew he could sing? And Sacha Baron Cohen as Thenardier, the thieving low-life, along with his wife Madame Thenadier (Helena Bonham Carter) deliver fine comic performances.
The rest of the cast are neither here nor there. Having lost tons of weight, Anne Hathaway successfully buries her loveliness under a dirty, scraggy, gaunt visage, but she’s all whimper, whimper, simper simper. Not that the role offers a lot of nuance: the poor woman is forced to turn from prim and pure to prostitution to pneumonia in the space of a few song-cycles. The other key characters don’t work. Eddie Redmayne was great as the boring Colin Clark in “My Week With Marylin”, where the conceit was, ‘how could a dolt like this end up with the world’s hottest woman?’ Here, as Marius, he’s supposed to be such a heart-throb that the sequestered Collette (a vacuous Amanda Seyfried) falls in love with him instantly.
I’m not buying it.
And that’s the core failing of this movie. Not unlike Spielberg’s “War Horse”, here’s a story that works brilliantly on the stage, but on the big screen, the promise of verisimilitude is wrecked by a narrative that simply lacks credibility. “War Horse” without the puppets became in Spielberg’s hands mere emotional treacle; and “Les Miz” without all the extraordinary genius of the staging and the exciting immediacy of the theatre simply exposes the psychological shallowness of the tale.
When tough guy Javert discovers that Jean Valjeun isn’t as bad as he thought, his immediate change of heart (scene changes on the stage suggest time lapses; on the screen, this evaporates) is so extreme that he kills himself. Really?
Good guy Jean Valjeun basically sequesters Collette for a decade. This is usually called kidnapping, but we’re meant to accept it as part of some sort of story-line convention. I didn’t.
And then Collette with a singe glance falls instantly in love with Marius who instantly reciprocates the love. Nice for a fairy-tale, which this does not purport to be. He, by the way had joined the uprising to fight for the rights of the downtrodden (it’s not called “Les Miserables” for nothing). But in the happy nuptials at the end, he seems comfortably happy with his nobility and vast fortune.
And dear, noble and downtrodden, Fantine leaves her beloved baby with two obviously nasty, scheming people. Works for Harry Potter, but not here.
Even Hooper’s production design doesn’t quite seem to know where to go. The movie starts with a nice big screen cinematic take on prisoners toiling in a boat yard. By the end, the production design is so staged and corny that the grandeur of the occasion (we’re in the midst of a major revolution here) is reduced to a silly street corner where you know it’s going to end badly for the rebels.
But, despite it all, “Les Miserables” was well received by many critics; and there’s no doubt that it’ll do well at the Oscars. Oscar likes this sort of fare: big, populist, seemingly about small people taking on the rich, pretty actresses down-playing their looks (think Charlize in “Monster”) and –critical – successful.