How entertaining? ★★★☆☆
Thought provoking? ★★☆☆☆
12 December 2012
This article is a review of LES MISERABLES.
“Let’s see what this world will do for me,” Jean Valjean
Your anticipation levels for LES MISERABLES will depend on your love for:
- Cameron Mackintosh’s oeuvre, and
- THE KING’S SPEECH (director Tom Hooper’s previous project).
I wasn’t fussed until the teaser trailer, which looked to be emotive, and packed with acting heavy hitters. And the cast give it their all. The problem is that the material is not good enough.
Opening similarly and uncannily to this year’s Jet Li starrer FLYING SWORDS OF DRAGON GATE, that is, a swooping camera across a ropily rendered CGI historic shipping port. A plethora of chained convicts pull a huge vessel into dry dock. While singing. Now some of you can buy chirpy musicals about summer lovin’, but despair might be beyond the pale. Virtually nothing is spoken without lyricism, opera-style. Obvs, there’ll be no adjustment for stageophiles.
1815, 26 years after the French revolution, a king is once again on the throne. We are told this as if some sort of shorthand suggesting a time of injustice. Other than that, there is no context or ideology explored. Hugh Jackman’s Jean Valjean has been incarcerated for 19 years – five for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his starving nephew, and the rest for attempting to escape. Immediately the themes of clemency and cruelty are set, and runs throughout, with few respites for hope; though compassion does soften tragedy. Jean is a singing wolverine, feral with rage fizzing beneath the skin. Finally paroled, but forever labelled as dangerous, Valjean roams the French countryside in clogs looking for work. At wits end, a Monseigneur takes him into his church and feeds him. In repayment Jean steals the silver chattels and runs into the night. Dragged back under guard, the Monseigneur says it was a gift. After the gendarmes leave, the religious leader tells him that he must use the silver to become an honest man, and claims Jean’s life for God.
Up until that point there are uses of vistas, but that comes to an end, bar sporadic shots. The majority of LES MISERABLES’ two and-a-half hours are close-ups and medium shots, making for a claustrophobic experience. Tom Hooper is not an adroit visualist. In the hands of someone with panache, they might have opened up the film into divertissements for audience eyes. As we jump to 1823 and later to 1832, the tools, palette and choreography are rote. It is the charisma on screen that saves the film and encourages engagement. As Valjean encounters characters played by Russell Crowe, Anne Hathaway, Amanda Seyfried, Sacha Baron Cohen, Eddie Redmayne and Helena Bonham Carter, their enthusiasm and personalities are channelled through physicality and various vocal ranges. The latter is a particular high point – the lack of polish to the crooning makes for less homogeny.
The real problem comes with the writing. Characters are infatuated after two encounters, and another declares a paternalistic bond after just overhearing a monologue. At over 150 minutes, surely there is time to build some sort of meaningful relationships? The conveying of emotions feels lazy, and the filmmakers seem to assume the viewer will just lap it up. Slowly proceedings slide from operetta to stage musical to pantomime, with an anti-climatic denouement. Do you remember the end of RETURN OF THE JEDI? Imagine if Yoda and Obi-Wan had started singing. Exactly.
There’s entertainment to be had, but it comes in fits and spurts. A highly flawed ode to higher callings.