LES MISERABLES Review: I Dreamed A Dream, But This Wasn’t It
That’s no exaggeration: Victor Hugo novel; big stage hit; France. (As a slave to pop culture, I suppose I can squeeze Susan Boyle‘s name on that slip of paper, too.) And there you have the extent of my Les Mis knowledge. With that, and including the fact that I had avoided lengthy reviews, and that the Twitterverse was divided enough on the film to keep it eligible for positive review status (not exactly 50/50, but close enough), I went to the theater with little, if any, prejudice.
Boy, did I leave the theater differently. I think a cry of SPOILER ALERT is required here if for no other reason than you might be as uninitiated as I was. But I will add that I don’t reveal the end of the film, and nothing I reveal is shocking.
The story begins with Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) serving his final day of a 19-year prison sentence. His original crime was theft; he stole bread to help feed his sister’s child, which only should have gotten him five years hard labor, but his resistance helped tack on another 14 years. His parole brings with it the requirement to routinely check in with a parole officer for the remainder of his life. Once on the streets of Paris, Valjean finds it impossible to get work because of his convict status, but a bishop takes mercy on him and offers him food and shelter. In full survivor mode, Valjean steals from the holy man but is soon caught. In a demonstration of absolute forgiveness, the bishop convinces the authorities that it was all a misunderstanding, preventing Valjean from returning to custody. Valjean vows to forever change his ways.
Eight years later, Valjean, living under an alias, is a factory owner, the mayor of his town, and a pillar in his community. A law enforcement official new to the town’s employ is Javert (Russell Crowe), who is also the man once in charge of the slave Valjean, as well as the man who has been hunting for Valjean since he failed to report to his parole officer some eight years prior. Fortunately for Valjean, enough time has passed (and enough of his appearance has changed) that Javert doesn’t quite recognize the ex-con.
In Valjean’s employ at the factory is the young and pretty Fantine (Anne Hathaway), who is discovered by bitter and petty (read: older and less attractive) coworkers to have had a child out of wedlock. When this information is provided to a factory manager whose advances Fantine has consistently rebuffed, the manager fires her. Fantine needs money to send to the Thénardiers (Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen), who are caring for her daughter – the young Cosette – so she sells her hair … then her teeth … then her body (as a prostitute), all for her daughter. She falls ill and Valjean (who did not realize she had been fired) vows to raise Cosette as his own. It’s when Fantine is dying in the hospital that Valjean reveals himself to Javert, only to slip away once again, this time after rescuing Cosette from a terrible situation with her foster family.
Fast-forward another nine years and again-aliased Valjean and Cosette (Amanda Seyfried) are living a comfortable life when several worlds collide – Javert appears, the Thénardiers re-emerge, and Paris is on the brink of the June Rebellion.
Whew! And that’s just the first act. A whole second act follows that.
Until the end of Act I, the film has more going for it than against it, and that positive momentum is fueled by Jackman. The opening 20 minute stretch of film represents the actor’s greatest performance of his career. The transformation of Valjean from boorish slave to desperate beggar to cunning thief to man redeemed, in Jackman’s hands, is something to behold. And I know that Jackman has great theatrical chops (the awards show hosting duties, the Tony and the Emmy, The Boy From Oz, and so forth), but his film career has been so Wolverine-centric (he’s played the mutant in four films already, with two more on the way) and so … hunky … that this performance reminded me of how I felt seeing Charlize Theron in 2003’s Monster – I was mesmerized by the transformation not just in features, but in complete aura.
When Hugh Jackman (the actor) dies, it’s this piece of film that should lead his career highlight reel.
Also propelling the first act into positive territory is Hathaway as Fantine. Have no illusions; her screen time is brief. But just as Valjean rises from despair and rushes towards salvation, Fantine plummets in an equal but opposite direction. And just as Valjean found new life in a new role, Fantine’s new role only found death.
Hathaway has no chance to show joy in her role, only multiple levels of despair, and she does so beautifully. The pinnacle of her performance, of course, is her rendition of THE money song from the soundtrack – the one everyone knows from either Susan Boyle or Glee – “I Dreamed a Dream.” I knew the song but never understood the song because I lacked the context. Hathaway delivers the context. And it isn’t her vocals that give the number such impact, it’s the pain in her delivery. You not only believe she feels it, you feel it with her.
And this delivery is greatly aided by the fact that, for the most part, the singing was done on-set, not dubbed with something that was pre-recorded. This is perhaps the single best decision the filmmakers made, as the absence of recording studio polish lends greater reality to the performance, thus greater pathos for the characters.
In the neutral column for Act I? Russell Crowe.
On the upside, understanding now the character Javert, Crowe is an excellent choice for the role – a brooding, manly, relentless law enforcer with a steely gaze that you cannot forget. On the downside, Crowe can’t sing.
Les Mis is more than your typical musical. The entire film is sung. That is to say, there is almost no “normally” spoken dialogue; with the exception of a line here and there, every word is sung by every character; it’s like an opera, but with traditional musical offerings.
Where was I? Oh yes, Crowe can’t sing. Okay look … he can carry a tune; it’s not as if he’s an American Idol blooper reel in the making. But in the company of Jackman and Hathaway, and without that recording studio polish, his pedestrian voice actually sounds worse than it probably is. Actors singing numbers worked well in 2001’s Moulin Rouge, but everyone who had significant singing lines in that film were close enough in terms of talent level. Here, Crowe is a distant, distant third (fifth if you count the pair playing the Thénardiers, and sixth if you count Seyfried).
On the negative side of Act I is Tom Hooper‘s direction. A collection of randomly chosen camera angles with far too many tight shots give what should have been a broad, sweeping epic an odd sense of claustrophobia. Add to that the overuse (abuse?) of handheld cameras (for that shaky Blair Witch feel) and, perhaps the greatest sin of all, what appear to be strategically placed WOW! shots – those over-the-top, sweeping crane and SFX shots that, in other large films with more consistent direction, would be natural, but here feel inserted as begrudging prerequisites to appease the IMAX set.
It’s often said that we do not know our limitations until we have exceeded them to the point of failure. Tom Hooper, who won a Best Director Oscar for 2010’s The King’s Speech, excels at intimate filmmaking, but Les Mis is no intimate film. It seems Mr. Hooper has discovered, in 2,800 theaters and on the country’s biggest holiday, the failure side of his limitations.
In Act II, which begins when Cosette and strapping freedom fighter Marius (Eddie Redmayne) catch each other’s eyes, the film completely unravels. In addition to Hooper’s repeated directorial sins (and adding his inablity to properly film action sequences), relationships evolve at a rate that strains credulity (even for the movies), heartstrings are cheaply tugged (when in doubt, add a plucky youngster), and we are asked to invest emotion into characters we’ve known for about five minutes.
While Jackman manages to shine throughout the picture, he simply cannot carry it all himself, and he winds up looking like an all-star player on a losing team. If you are a Jackman devotee, then by all means go. Otherwise, wait for the DVD.