Les Miserables is a faithful adaptation of both Victor Hugo’s novel and Claude-Michel Schonberg’s musical, but also a film of missed opportunities. The story concerns the plight of the convict-turned-Christian Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) who is hunted by the persistent Inspector Javert (Russell Crowe). The story progresses through seventeen years, climaxing with the 1832 June Rebellion in Paris.
Director Tom Hooper’s adaptation of Les Miserables is certain to appease the legions of musical theater fans who will be happy to see veteran Broadway heartthrobs Aaron Tveit and Samantha Barks. Hooper’s adaptation will also satisfy movie-goers who crave sentimentality—after all, it is impossible to leave the theater without teary eyes and a few sniffles. However, Hooper’s film will not leave a lasting impression in the film community.
It attempts to reconcile three different mediums of telling the same story: novel, musical theater and now film. However, it caters too heavily to its roots and fails to successfully create its own space on screen. Hooper misses an opportunity to provide spectacular and cohesive visuals. In addition, the actors tip-toe along the fourth wall, sometimes acting within the world of Les Miserables and other times orienting themselves around the camera to give piercing looks into the audience. Hooper’s film was simply an adaptation of the stage musical and manifested no new meaning or craft from the familiar story.
Just because Les Miserables is not the best film, though, does not mean it is a bad film adaptation. Hooper is wise to use the makeup department to his advantage, creating a highly dramatic, yet genuine, metamorphosis of Jean Valjean over the seventeen years shown in the film. In addition, while the setting as a whole is underwhelming, certain scenes shine with an epic glory that only film can hold, especially the initial images depicting a crew of prisoners hauling in a ship. These moments of grandeur are fleeting, but clearly the work of a seasoned director.
In the fashion of many audiences before me, it is impossible to go without applauding Anne Hathaway’s performance as Fantine. Hathaway emerges as a contemporary Audrey Hepburn, simultaneously embodying both beauty and power in the framework of a fragile character. Crowe provides a wholly-convincing performance of Javert’s steadfastness to the law amidst inner turmoil, even if his singing isn’t up to par. However, he lacks chemistry with Jackman, whose performance is deserving of, at best, an “A” for effort. The Thenardiers (Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter) bring humorous interludes to the sob-fest, but the humor is owed more to the lyrics rather than their acting. The best character of all is the ensemble, which, if it were utilized better, could have provided much-needed breaks between a seemingly unending string of deaths.
Hooper’s Les Miserables is worth seeing for the shining performances and momentary glimpses of filmic potential, but the audience should not expect to glean more meaning or experience than they would from viewing the stage production. However, given that Les Miserables is a fantastic musical in and of itself, the movie is a gem in a season full mostly of 3D re-releases and bad Billy Crystal comedies.