1/3/2013 - A paroled criminal attempts to build a new virtuous life in Les Miserables, a nearly three-hour jaunt through revolutionary-era France.
Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) has been imprisoned and forced to do hard labor for the crime of stealing bread to feed his sister’s child. After 19 years, he is paroled but given papers that will forever mark him as a criminal and told not to skip town. I’ll be watching you, police officer Javert (Russell Crowe) tells him. After attempts to find honest work fail, Valjean resorts to stealing from the kind bishop (Colm Wilkinson) who offers him a meal and a place to eat. Police officers drag Valjean back to the bishop to answer for stealing church silver, but the bishop backs up Valjean’s story that he (the bishop) gave Valjean the valuables, even adding in the two candlesticks he says that Valjean forgot. Valjean is shocked and shamed by this act and decides to dedicate himself to being a better man. Step 1: shake off “Jean Valjean” and become someone else.
Hence, some eight years later he is a wealthy man who goes by the name Monsieur Madeleine and owns a rosary factory. Javert, now a police inspector in this area, shows up and starts to suspect that Madeleine is not who he appears to be. Meanwhile, just because his factory makes rosaries doesn’t mean it’s full of saints. The women who work there are gossipy busybodies and the foreman is a letch, and thus pretty young Fantine (Anne Hathaway) doesn’t stand a chance. When it’s discovered that she has a daughter, the foreman takes it as a sign she’s a loose woman (in particular, a loose woman who won’t be loose with him) and fires her. Valjean, all wrapped up in the sudden appearance of Javert, doesn’t get involved in the situation and, faster than you can say “method acting,” Fantine has sold her hair, a few of her teeth and is working as a prostitute to raise money to care for her daughter Cosette (Isabelle Allen). It’s in this dire state that Valjean finds her and repents for his lack of caring that brought her to this leave of degradation. He vows to help her and her daughter, leading too...
Nine years after that, grown Cosette (Amanda Seyfried) lives a quiet life with Valjean, who is a father to her, but then she sees Marius (Eddie Redmayne), a young revolutionary. While Paris simmers with political unrest, Cosette and Marius fall suddenly and madly in love. And then there’s Javert, a police inspector in Paris now, who has a chance encounter with Valjean and is back on the Valjean hunt.
And in all of this I haven’t even got to the Thenardiers, Monsieur (Sacha Baron Cohen) and Madam (Helena Bonham Carter), the unsavory innkeepers who little Cosette was living when Fantine was paying her way. Always looking for a chance to fleece somebody, they are one of the few people who know Valjean’s face.
I’ll give the movie this: It’s a jillion hours long, but it’s not dilly-dallying. Pretty much every moment is stuffed with plot.
Tea or coffee? Cake or pie? Sung-through musicals or musicals where songs are nestled between spoken dialogue? Personally, I’ll take a full-caf coffee, a slice of chocolate cake and The Sound of Music, please. It isn’t some “singing interferes with the reality” argument. Musicals do not reflect reality — nor, for that matter, do dance movies, pratfall-heavy comedies, action movies and pretty much everything that isn’t an independent film offering a searing portrait of class struggle in French. (And, for all I know, if I spoke French I’d be all “check out the fakey fake escapism” about those movies too.) For me, I think it’s that an all-singing musical requires actors to do a lot of acting — by which I mean, Acting, serious emoting with spittle and anguished expression — while singing, which really gets in the way of planting your feet in the spotlight and singing it out to the cheap seats. Rather than putting all energy toward belting out “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” there is, here, a lot more sing-talking and starts and stops in songs which, for me at least, gets in the way of letting, say, “I Dreamed a Dream” or many of Valjean’s songs really blossom into the big show stoppers they could be.
This is particularly true when the singing is not exactly blowing you away. I gather that some people really dug Hathaway’s anguished Fantine. For me, her voice was a mile wide but an inch deep — big and loud but kind of hollow. Jackman was OK, but primarily because you could regularly compare him to Crowe, who was inconsistent and generally medicore. Sometimes, he seemed to be going big — deep and expansive opera-style singing (though he could never keep that up for long). Sometimes, he seemed like maybe this was one of the covers his band (yes, he has a band) was singing at the local pub. Slide a five-spot his way and Crowe will follow up “The Confrontation” with “Freebird.”
Samantha Barks, playing Eponine, the grown daughter of the Thenardiers, who knew Cosette as a child and is also in love with Marius, gives one of the better performances. Her “On My Own” was one of the few songs that worked for me. Her role generally feels a little unnecessary, but her singing was consistently excellent. And Redmayne’s “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables” is particularly moving if not the best-sung thing I’ve ever heard. In fact, it comes at the end of an odd 10-minute stretch that is probably the most affecting thing in the film and had me, well, not tearing up exactly, but thinking that maybe tearing up was a way I could go. (And really, for reasons that have little to do with the movie itself. Let’s just say that if we could take a four or five month break from movies that feature children dying violently, I’d consider it a personal favor, Hollywood. Do a focus group, check the level of the room. I’m sure I’m not the only one.)
The least integral to the plot but by far most interesting characters are the couple played by Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter. Their Thenardiers are great fun and they add life for us groundlings who could use a bit of relief.
Les Miserables is a lot of movie, not all of it successful. I suspect this is sort of a Twilight situation: if you’re already a fan, you’ll have fun; if you’re new to the musical, this probably won’t sell you on it. C+
Rated PG-13 for suggestive and sexual material, violence and thematic elements. Directed by Tom Hooper with a screenplay by William Nicholson, Les Miserables is two hours and 38 minutes long and distributed by Universal Pictures.