If you had any investment, emotional or otherwise, in this movie when it was in theaters then you’ll know that critically it was a mixed bag of some people loving it and some people liking the music but hating the movie it’s wrapped in. Over the time between now and then everyone’s had their voice heard over what was wrong and what was right with this movie that going into it further just feels like I’d be echoing what people who do this job better than me have said. The cinematography doesn’t work, the story skips around unevenly, the story shifting from Jean Valjean to Marius and Cosette is frustrating because they’re empty characters, the cinematography doesn’t work, the singing gets in the way of the story while the story sometimes gets in the way of the singing due to the fact that this is a movie not a musical, and the cinematography really doesn’t work. There’s a thing called “Honest Trailers,” whose name is self-explanatory, on Youtube and I think they sum it up pretty well in a way that’s much more entertaining than I am. Unfortunately it contains spoilers, so if you haven’t seen the movie yet I recommend holding off on that one. I mostly agree with other critics that this is a really messy movie, but there are some parts of the “hate it” reviews that I don’t agree with. For instance, am I the only one that doesn’t mind Russell Crowe’s singing voice? I am? Well, okay then.
Jean Valjean is a parolee unloved by the world around him for a crime that most would consider just to commit, but in this case the world deals in absolutes because it’s the past and everyone was kind of a jerk back then, slavery and all. However, when he steals from a priest, instead of turning him in, the priest shows clemency. Valjean takes the opportunity and tries turn his life around, despite how difficult it may be to leave his past behind. But that’s not how the story begins. Valjean opens a factory where he employs Fantine, a woman who is tragically fired and immediately, either literally or through awkward transitioning, resorts to increasingly desperate choices to provide for her daughter Cosette. That’s also not where the story starts. Valjean finds Fantine in this state and promises to take care of Cosette as penance and for the redemption of his soul for the clemency he was given years before. Nine years later, as revolution brews in France, Valjean must protect Cosette as they are continually chased by the law while she has fallen in love with a young, idealistic revolutionary. That’s where the story begins. Why did I take so long to get there? Ask the movie.
I’m probably being more cynical than I should be with this but I think I gave the movie too much credit the first time I saw it. This is the universe balancing itself out. I personally have never seen the musical so I wouldn’t know how this plays out there, but as a movie this doesn’t work. The story is Valjean’s as the beginning lets us know. He’s faced cruelty and it has left him bitter and desperate. However an ember of hope is kindled inside him to a flame by one person’s kindness which he hopes to in turn spread to the world in what way he can. Then we have Cosette, who’s… pretty. And Marius who’s… pretty, naïve, and shallow. Half-way through the movie Valjean practically becomes a supporting character to his own story and to a couple who don’t deserve his place.
The acting is great. If there’s one good thing that the camera did it was let us know that the actors were acting. The problem is two-fold; Transitioning and character development. One problem generally causes the other, crippling the movie. We move from scene to scene, from time to time, and from year to year in such a jerky manner that the inability to stick causes in an inability to connect save for with characters who don’t change, namely Valjean and Javier. For example, Fantine’s downward spiral likely takes place over a long period of time, but it’s like it happens in a single night due to the fact that it occurs over the course of a single song.We don’t get her struggle because for the most part it wasn’t a struggle, those take time and the resonance of failure to sink in and let us sympathize. This felt more like one of those anti drunk driving commercials except the message is not to walk down a dark alley alone because inevitably you’ll wind up destitute beyond hopelessness having sex in a coffin. Cosette is introduced as a downtrodden child in the style of Cinderella but after we’re whisked off to nine years down the line she’s completely changed, if only because no one is the same as they were before the age of ten.
Before we can understand who she’s become we get all these songs celebrating the fact that she’s in love and how that’s wonderful but so far as we know she’s just another person until we find out who she is and we have a reason to care! Introductions come for new characters an hour into the movie, and because they show up so late they are developed expediently as people who are angry at the corrupt government. A timeless character trope, but it only connects us with their goal, not with the people themselves. It makes having one of them become a main character kind of difficult. Then there’s the cartoonish and the grim. Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter play the pick pocket innkeepers and caretakers of Cosette. Their introduction song is the reason movies are movies and musicals are musicals. That is to say, the elaborate way they go about stealing from their guests makes sense on a stage because the exaggeration lends itself to being clearly presented to a wide audience. Here we have cameras which can capture actions at any angle and computers which can capture the actions cameras can’t. Everything they do is over the top and doesn’t match at all with the somber and melancholy performance everyone else is going for. As comic relief goes, it’s a necessary thing especially in a movie like this, but they take up way too much screentime.
Also just a quick spoiler in the following because it is impossibly infuriating. At the end of the movie Marius, having had all his friends killed in the name of revolution against an ever indulgent bourgeoisie returns to his family of wealth and easy living to marry Cosette. He just abandons his principles out of nowhere at the end and it’s treated as a happy ending! His life may in a sense mirror Valjean’s, especially in the way he adopts protection of Cosette but they are different characters with different backgrounds! Marius rejected his familial wealth in the name of equality for the downtrodden! This isn’t him finding hope in kindness this is him having a party because he decided he was finished slumming! He doesn’t deserve Cosette and he didn’t deserve the admiration of Eponine!
Phew! Now that I’m done spewing all that vitriol (wipes chin), I think this movie is still worth recommending. I’ll just give you a moment to collect your jaw which has likely fallen down into the mantle layer of the Earth now. It’s a similar conundrum to Anna Karenina wherein a movie has so much going for it while being undercut by poor execution exhibited by good intentions. The music is great, though if it weren’t it wouldn’t make sense to recommend the movie at all because if it’s a musical what’s the point otherwise? The costuming looks good too. Every actor’s performance is top notch, though Russell Crowe’s gets a bit “Nicholas Cage” at times. The story is a classic and if you can’t find yourself looking up tickets and showtimes online for the live version then this is the fastest way to see it. If nothing else, it may convince you to look up better versions of the songs some of the weaker performers sing. Like I said though, none of the music here is awful. Also, I’m a fan of old-timey flintlock rifles and a bunch of those are in here too. It’s an experience for those who haven’t seen the movie or heard the music before. You just won’t want to watch it twice because by that point you’ll have already dissected the movie for the songs you like and have added them to your next workout playlist.
Les Miserables premieres on HBO and HBO Go tomorrow (8/31). Grab the Blu-Ray to add it to your collection forever or to share it with a non-HBO subscriber! Better yet check out the book or soundtrack!