There’s nothing particularly wrong with Tom Hooper’s movie adaptation of the hit musical “Les Misérables.” The sets are spectacular, the cast likable, and at least one of the songs will be stuck in your head as you walk out of the theater. For all the spectacle, star-studded cast, and drama, however, the epic musical’s debut on the silver screen is nothing but a very weak dose of vanilla. Nowhere in the bloated 157 minutes does the film really take off, dragging along bland and flat with only a few memorable sprinkles.
Since its debut in 1985, Les Misérables—known affectionately by fans as Les Mis—has been translated into 21 languages, performed in 43 countries, seen by more than 60 million people, and even become a political symbol when its revolutionary anthem was sung by students in Hong Kong after the Tiananmen Square massacre. Based on Victor Hugo’s lengthy novel, the story consists mainly of two sections. The first half introduces us to Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman), a convict-turned-saint whose imprisonment for stealing bread to save his dying nephew is only the first indictment of the state of post-Revolution France. After breaking his parole, he becomes the respectable mayor and factory owner of a small French town, where he befriends Fantine (Anne Hathaway), the classic tragic, good-hearted fallen woman, and promises to save her daughter, Cosette. After confessing to his true identity, Valjean flees his town to begin a lifelong game of cat-and-mouse with Inspector Javert (Russell Crowe), a man driven by his sense of justice who seems to pop up literally every place Valjean appears.
A decade goes by, and Valjean and Cosette are brought into the orbit of a group of idealistic, revolutionary students when Cosette falls in love with a member of their ranks, Marius (Eddie Redmayne). Disgusted by the poverty and corruption around them and hoping to incite the people to rise once more, the young men take up arms and throw themselves behind a hastily constructed barricade to square off with the French army. As if all this weren’t enough, throw a love triangle on top, as Marius has unwittingly won the heart of Eponine (Samantha Barks), a poor girl from the street who helps him find Cosette.
One of the best qualities of the musical is this plethora of characters, lending the show variety, energy, and dynamism that comes from following different plotlines to their convergence in showstoppers such as “One Day More.” The film, however, does not seem to know what to do with all of the different characters, weighed down in its attempt to fit in all the individuals and their songs. Combined with some of the cast’s apparent inability to sing and act simultaneously, the movie dragged through iconic songs such as “Stars” and “On My Own” as if it were tired of its own one-dimensional existence. By the time Eponine sings “On My Own” we have been beaten over the head with the fact that Marius doesn’t love her back, and her solitary trudge through the rainy streets of Paris is no longer an expression of the bitterness of unrequited love but just another number to get through.
And here we come to the heart of the problem. Musicals (and operettas and operas if you want to get technical) are an inherently contrived genre, as people clearly don’t burst into song in everyday life (as much as some of us might wish). The scenes in Les Mis that worked best—and there were indeed a few that rose far above the rest—were ones in which the characters seemed to sing because it was the only way they could express themselves. So overwhelming was Fantine’s despair that she could do nothing but sing “I Dreamed A Dream.” So passionate were the students about the suffering of the people that their anthem “Red and Black” soared forth. So great was Marius’ pain at the cruel loss of his friends that his only way to remember them was “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables.”
Not that Redmayne and Hathaway were the only ones with these opportunities for passion and emotion, but few seized them. Jackman and Crowe in particular seemed to be frozen in permanent expressions of pain, braying out their songs not because their characters felt any emotion but because it was, well, a musical and thus time once more to sing. As a result, both Valjean and Javert were left one-dimensional and unsympathetic, with little character development over the course of two and a half hours. The movie felt not like an epic story told through music but one damn song after the other.
So instead of spending your ten dollars and three hours at the movie theater this weekend, do yourself a favor and find a copy of the 10th anniversary concert of the show. Performed by a carefully selected “dream cast” that lives up to its billing, this version is the best you’ll get without a trip to a respected theater. With its energy and emotion, not to mention magnificent singing and acting, it is a reminder of why Les Mis has become one of the most beloved shows around the world, and thus, a testament to the failings of Hooper, Jackman, and company.
Now playing in theaters.
Elaine’s Verdict: 2 out of 4 stars