As a preface to this review, I’d just like to note that I’m not the biggest fan of (non-comedy) musicals. Not even this specific musical, but just in general. However, there are a few real musicals, like West Side Story, that I genuinely enjoy. Because they sort of follow the film musical formula that works. Whether or not Les Miserables follows that formula I’ll get to in a minute, but regardless, it’s a pretty entertaining film at its core.
The biggest credit I can give to Les Miserables is that it’s very well made. Due to its heavy following from the stage musical, it deserved a rather large film treatment. On scope, the film is very large. It takes place over three different time periods, and at two and a half hours, it really feels like an epic story. Maybe because it’s two and a half hours I’m forced to believe that it’s epic, I’m not sure. It felt rather epic.
The acting was pretty top-notch from everybody. I could tell that these people actually wanted to be in this film, and they weren’t just doing it for the money. Anne Hathaway in particular was pretty great in this, showing some genuine emotion in her performance. Hugh Jackman probably put forth the greatest effort of anybody in this. I’m sure he was annoying to everyone in his real life, because he probably sang everything; from requests for his wife to bring him the newspaper to ordering food at his local deli. “What have I become, I thought I would eat better…? Now here I am, my poorboy with extraaaaa CHEDDAAAAAAAAAAAAAAARRRR…”
But it did feature the eye roll of the year: Helena Bonham Carter appearing in a movie with tacky makeup and crazy hair for the 314th time.
The set designs were pretty great, and worthy of awards recognition. I have no idea what was and wasn’t lifted from the stage production, but the whole thing looked pretty nice. The cinematography was at times very interesting, and very reminiscent of the director’s previous effort The King’s Speech. Lots of extreme left or right framing set against interesting wallpaper. I guess that’s his thing. If you’re into costume design and make-up effects, this also seemed like a great achievement. Then again, I’m assuming that a lot of that kind of stuff was lifted heavily from the style of the stage production.
The core songs were pretty good. I liked the “I Dreamed a Dream” song, and whenever they would go back to that melody. It has a very good orchestral score. The music is the driving force behind this whole thing, so it’s hard to criticize the music. Millions of people really love it. I dug it, even if it’s not my thing. Some songs were kind of bad, though, in my opinion. Like the “Red/Black” song, which I felt barely had a working rhythm. But for the most part, I can see why people like the music in the film.
I did not like the constant singing throughout the film, however. This is where the successful formula gets broken for me. Just talk in between the songs! The constant singing came across to me as… annoying. I would have liked the film better if it was a regular talking film, and then they burst into song for the main songs. Instead we have people singing things like “Hey get overrrrr here for a miiiiinuuuuute” “Okaaaayyyyy I’m on my waaaaaayyyyy“. It felt like I was sitting in an annoying high school drama club meeting where everyone won’t stop singing. Also I felt like a lot of times people (Hugh Jackman) would start out talking and then randomly decide to finish his sentence in song. “Cosette, get your things we have to geeeettt ooouuuut oooooof HEEEEEEERE.” It didn’t work for me.
The other critical problem with the film is that it felt more like an interpretation of the existing stage production, and not so much its own thing. Right off the get go, the film opens with a scene of a bunch of dudes hauling in a big CGI boat. Pretty cool looking. After that, the rest of the film takes place in small rooms and very enclosed areas. It stopped feeling like a real film after a while and just felt like set piece after set piece. Also the film has a major problem with people just showing up where they need to be without any explanation of how they got there. Little girl is walking in the woods and Hugh Jackman is conveniently there. Anne Hathaway gets in a dispute in the wee hours of the morning, Russell Crowe and Hugh Jackman are both inexplicably there right afterwards. Hugh Jackman is in the hospital, SO IS RUSSELL CROWE. It’s a situation that’s perfectly acceptable for the stage production because those sort of logic errors are necessary for it to work properly. In a film however, people shouldn’t just be showing up when convenient. Well, I mean, they CAN… but it will look stupid.
I also felt like the movie is too long, and it didn’t end at the right spot. Now, I’m aware that it probably ended where the stage production ends, but I didn’t like how far they had to take it. It goes past the actual climax of the film, and then decides to once again expose us to the comic relief characters in the second to last scene of the film for some reason. Like it went from an emotional revelation of Valjean coming to terms with himself, then goes to a comedy scene, then goes to a depressing, drawn-out closing number with Valjean, then ends with a one minute burst of revolutionary rejoice with all of the dead characters singing on an imaginary barricade. What does the film want to be about, Valjean’s identity crisis or the French Revolution? I guess the answer is both, but it would have worked better if they chose one clear focus.
That being said, I think this is a story worth being told. If they let the film have its own identity instead of simply pleasing the people who are already established fans, and made the film have a clear focus, it would have been better. If Les Miserables was an original film idea and this was the result without any built-in expectation or acknowledgment that it’s a success elsewhere, people would be savagely attacking it for its clunky storytelling. Right now I feel like a lot of those kinds of errors get brushed off simply because when you get down to it, this film is more of an homage to the musical than some kind of brilliant new vision. It’s good, I was very sparingly bored (maybe two scenes), and I think if you dig Broadway musicals you’ll really enjoy the film. I don’t dig Broadway musicals and I was able to enjoy it for the most part.
7.5 out of 10