Les Misérables is a sumptuous, gorgeous, beautifully produced period musical. It is unabashedly musical: almost the entire film is sung. If you are not interested in a movie which is sung, stay away. You will know within 5 minutes of the beginning whether or not you’ll like the movie. I was quickly enrapt by the engaging choral performances and unexpectedly good story development, and felt like I was watching something special. The film creates an immersive experience by way of its fully fleshed out and elaborate sets, its costumes and art direction, and the ever-present soundtrack. Story is present here, too. The classic conflict between officer Javert (Russell Crowe) and ex-convict Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) forms a great foundation on which to lay the ensuing action.
And then Anne Hathaway as Fantine performs the film’s signature piece “I Dreamed a Dream” and I was pretty much blown away. This in my mind is one of the great solo performances ever presented on film. I felt like applauding right there in the theater, but the silence at the end of the song cued me to bind the applause within my heart. If the remainder of the film were a flop, which it is not, Hathaway’s performance alone would be worth the price of admission.
Anne Hathaway in Les Misérables
Now, although the musical performances as a whole I found delightful and entertaining, the cast here are more so professional actors than musicians. As such, do not expect singing on the highest level of musicianship as you would find in, say, an opera, or a great solo pop song. But then again the lyrics do not work that way in the first place. The actors’ performances here are well suited to the format of Les Misérables. In fact, the stature of these great actors only helps to add weight to the collective experience.
A down note: at around two-thirds through the movie, it becomes disjointed and disconnected from its earlier stages. The resulting fragments cause harm. There is a love story and a latter-day French revolution story that do not work nearly as well as the story elements that ran earlier. And the grand finale did not quite live up to my expectations.
Nonetheless, Les Misérables is the success that Sweeney Todd never was, and I am not just saying that because Helena Bonham Carter is in both. It will restore your faith in the period musical that might have been lost in that earlier Broadway-brought-to-film production. Sacha Baron Cohen also impressed me here. I had thought that he would find it difficult to follow up Borat, but with his role here and his turn in Hugo a year ago, he is proving to be quite the good theatrical character actor.
Another small negative: what is with movies these days never showing any beginning credits or titles? I mean, at least give me the title of the movie. Think of how titles can embellish a film’s start: the original Superman, 2001, Star Wars and Star Trek, The Doors. In the beginning moments of this movie, there were a couple opportunities to show the resplendent title screen it deserves, and a certain richness is lost by omitting it.
Overall, though, Les Misérables is a rich and grand production, a triumphant arc that delivers more than can be expected from big Hollywood these days. 8/10, but take it as it is and forgive its trespasses. And make sure to see it in a theater with good sound.
Now a question: What was the better 2012 musical? This or Rock of Ages? Good question.