Movies: Les Misérables

les_miserables_ver11I know I’m a little late on this one. It’s been out for a few weeks now, but we only saw it tonight because it was a charity event and the date was set. Better late than never.

I should disclose at the outset that I’ve seen Les Mis on stage – twice. The first time was in the early 1990’s in a professional theatre in Melbourne. The second time was a more amateur, but still very good, performance here in Hobart in the mid-late 1990’s. I’m no Les Mis expert, however. Not by any means.

I’d heard mixed reviews about this film prior to seeing it and I had wondered to myself how such an established stage show would work as a film musical.

The mixed reviews all centered around the quality of the singing. The PR spinmeisters made a point of telling everyone that the singing in the film was recorded live on set. It’s not a studio performance with all of the refinements that a studio performance brings. There’s no miming here – what you see and hear is the performers doing their best at the time the film was made.

It shows, too. Take a look.


Yes, some of the singing is much thinner than what you might expect.

I have to say, however, that I was completely surprised – and riveted – by this film.

Just who is this Les fella and why’s he so miserable?

Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) is a convict released after 19 years in prison for stealing some bread. He experiences forgiveness at the hands of a kind priest and vows to become a better man. Desperate to start a new life and not believing that he’ll get an opportunity as a former prisoner, Valjean breaks his parole and begins his new life on his own terms. He achieves success and later, as mayor of a village and a business owner, he promises the dying Fantine (Anne Hathaway) that he will care for her daughter, Cosette.

Valjean is pursued throughout the film by Javert, a policeman played by Russell Crowe. Javert is committed to finding Valjean and taking him back to prison for breaking his parole. Valjean’s redemption into respectable society cuts no slack with Javert.

The film moves through two decades in post-revolution France where there is still a great deal of instability and uprising. A grown Cosette falls in love with a revolutionary named Marius and Valjean, realising that the girl who has effectively become his daughter must leave their itinerant, escapee life and join her love. Valjean has a number of run-ins with Javert, fights with the doomed revolutionaries and assures his ward’s fate.

When I saw Les Mis on stage back in the 1990s, I took away a story of the redemption of Jean Valjean. The flexibility allowed by film, however, allowed director Tom Hooper to give each character so much more depth. This added depth opens the story up in such away that characters become so much richer. The storyline is so much more of a human story of the love between Valjean and Cosette, as well as Cosette and her hero, Marius.

It’s fair to say that the singing IS thin in places. It’s occasionally off-note. I’d heard this before seeing the film and I was prepared to go right into attack mode as I thought about having to write this review afterwards.

I can’t.

Whilst the singing isn’t as professional as you expect, it lends a certain realism to the film. This story is all about men and women struggling through their desperate lives – who’s got perfect pitch and rich tone in the midst of all that? The thinness of their voices actually feels real, which is an unexpected, but welcome change.

It’s strange to say this about a musical, but the acting performances place the singing in a spot where you’re compelled to accept these people as real. They have fibre. Grit. Determination. Sorrow. Genuine, genuine sorrow.

The casting in this film is superb, too. It’s probably the magic ingredient that allowed this production to be so good.

Jackman is simply great as Valjean. Russell Crowe seems wooden as Javert and is probably the worst singer in the film, but Javert is such a rigid character that Crowe’s performance suits Javert down to the ground. Helena Bonham-Carter is fantastic in nearly everything she does and this is no exception, playing wife to Sasha Baron-Cohen’s ‘Master of the House’, Thénardier. Yes, they even made Borat look good. Exceptional, actually.

The standout performance, without doubt, belongs to Anne Hathaway as Cosette’s mother, Fantine. I defy anyone to watch her feature performance of ‘I Dreamed a Dream’ and not be moved. She was absolutely incredible.

The only detraction from this film is that it’s looooooong. Over 2.5 hours, in fact. It could have been paced a little quicker, but I’m not complaining.

In fact, I’m giving it 4.5 out of 5 stars.

An outstanding film. It’s a testament to Victor Hugo’s original story that it can be told with singing that’s below what you expect, but still be totally compelling and full of such emotion.

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  1. Surprisingly interesting. I’d only heard of movie buffs complaining about the camera work in the film – almost all handheld. But I guess I’ll have to watch it for the story now.

  2. Swade, the les mis performance that really captivated me is the 25th anniversary one at London’s O2 center ( I wasn’t there,!) It’s on YouTube in its entirety.

    Better than the film, I thought. Film was good though.

  3. My wife wants to see it and now I may go with a better outlook as to what I will see. thanks for the review.

    Happy New Year to you.

  4. I haven’t seen it, but I’ve read a lot of reviews – and I think you’re spot on in terms of the singing. It’s more true to life that not all the characters are going to be pitch-perfect – obviously I’m looking at Russell Crowe here. I’ve listened to his voice and it’s probably a welcome change of pace and adds the ‘everyman’ aspect to the movie.

    1. Limited space on the hard drive, Mark. TOFOG would be next on the list after Alvin and the Chipmunks and those monks who make weird throaty noises (if I ever made it that far down the list).

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