As a Les Miz virgin – I’d never read the novel nor seen a theatrical production – I went in blind. I knew the basics of the story, and was ready to have my mind blown by what the film’s trailer had indicated would be a mind-blowing movie, grand on scale, spectacle and singing. Yet, what I found instead were a few great moments in an otherwise choppy narrative with a distinct lack of emotional connection (amongst most of the characters, and between the characters and the audience). Never mind the bum-numbing running time, which could easily have been trimmed by a good half-hour, at least.
Set in 19th century France, and essentially a redemption journey, the story centers on ex-convict Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman), who assumes a new identity and turns over a new leaf upon his release, becomes a successful businessman, crosses paths with factory-worker-turned-prostitute Fantine (Anne Hathaway) and, eventually, assumes guardianship of her daughter, Cosette (played by Isabelle Allen as a girl, and Amanda Seyfried as a teenager). Along the way, he’s relentlessly pursued by Inspector Javert (Russell Crowe), who has an almost pathological desire to persecute our hero. We also meet an array of supporting characters, including a pair of corrupt innkeepers (Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter), a young revolutionary named Marius (Eddie Redmayne) smitten with Cosette, and the innkeepers’ daughter Éponine (Samantha Barks), who is meant to be the thread that ties many of these stories together in the film’s second half.
Unfortunately, those ties are sometimes shaky, and a good portion of Les Misérables feels disjointed, as though there’s no flow between scenes and moments and characters and stories. Granted, some of those scenes and moments are truly outstanding – Hathaway’s showstopping rendition of “I Dreamed a Dream” is every bit as excellent as you hope it will be, as is the bookend finale number featuring various cast members – but many that one would expect to gut-punch the soul come off as decidedly meh. The power and impact of the film fall flat, as though there’s a force field between the screen and the theater seats that stops any emotion dead in its tracks before it can reach the crowd. I expected to be a sobbing mess, but only the two scenes I cited even evoked tears from me.
Performance-wise, Hathaway (though only onscreen briefly, really) and Jackman carry the film and both are strong. Crowe is, sadly, vocally out of his element – he would have made a fabulous Javert if this had been a non-musical adaptation but his voice doesn’t jive with the demands of the role and the songs. Seyfried and Redmayne are both very good, but Baron Cohen and Bonham Carter feel as though they’re dropped in from a completely different movie. Yes, they’re meant to serve as comic relief, but they are so over-the-top cartoon-y that they stand out. In a bad way.
Thankfully, because I’d not seen the stage musical, I’m not as disappointed with the movie as I fear many superfans might be. Still, for a big holiday event film and one that’s clearly gunning for Oscar nomination, Les Misérables was nonetheless underwhelming.