Les Misérables is the classic story of Jean Valjean, a man who is hunted for many years by the ruthless officer Javert, after breaking parole in 19th-century France. He promises dying factory-worker Fantine to take care of her daughter Cosette. It is a story about belief, honour, debts, love, and revolution.
There is an amazing cast assembled here, and the talent is splattered across the screen. There’s incredible acting, and astounding singing (some people get all the talents…). Especially Russell Crowe as Javert and Anne Hathaway as Fantine stood out to me as being exceptionally great. Their characters go through some intense emotional hardship and this is performed remarkably.
Les Mis’ production design and -value is also exceptional. Both the grandeur and squalor of 19th century France is showcased remarkably well in huge sets with incredible detail. Not to mention the huge amount of actors, in especially the revolutionary scenes, really sell the experience.
As this is a musical I can’t ignore talking about the music and lyrics. I have never seen any other adaptation of Les Mis, and went in to the movie with absolutely no expectations or preconceptions. I was pleasantly surprised with the beautiful story, which is transferred really well by the music and lyrics. However, it is quite a sit-through. The movie runs over 2,5 hours, and with the exception of a few lines of dialogue, everything is sung. Lines such as “Where are you?” and “Help, I am stuck under this cart!” are all sung. This does wear on you in times, and perhaps elongates the runtime more than was necessary. On the other hand, it’s a musical, what do you expect?
I hate to be too critical here, as I did like the overall movie-experience, but the cinematography was abysmal at times. There are certain choices that the director made that are unfathomable to me. Among others, there is a severe overuse of handheld camera-techniques. This humanizes the audience, and lowers them to the level of the characters, placing the audience within their midst (as opposed to the ‘eye of god’). I can understand this in and of itself, but combined with some of the other techniques creates a feeling quite separate from the intention of the story in the movie. Deliberate off-kilter framing and dutch-angles are used multiple times. These are used to create a sense of uneasiness and tension in the audience. Very effective, and amazing when used at the right times, but completely misused in Les Misérables. Here they appeared in scenes involving love and happiness. Although I doubt the average movie-goer notices such things consciously, I believe it would subconsciously detract from the emotional connect the audience makes with the on-screen characters, and the movie-nerd in me was not happy.
Having said that, emotional connect is in no way an issue with Les Mis. There are some incredible scenes where, using a constant close-up and one long take, a character gets to pour his/her heart out to the audience, and this is felt through the bone. Anne Hathaway’s “I dreamed a dream” springs to mind as an example. During what must be a multiple-minute long constant take Anne sings the entire song in one take, whilst performing an incredible range both emotionally and vocally. (Singing whilst weeping hysterically can’t be easy). I can neither confirm nor deny a heightened moistness of the eyeballs at this point.
Les Misérables is quite the show, grand in design and performances. Its long runtime and excessive singing do make it a formidable watch however, certainly not for everyone’s taste. And thus, even though my personal feelings would suggest a five-out-of-six rating, I want to be somewhat objective here, and suggest you only watch this if you are interested in either musicals or the story of Les Mis in general.