Les Misérables tasks itself with adapting a musical that itself was an unlikely adaptation. Few thought that Victor Hugo’s masterpiece of human struggle in the years following the French Revolution would be fine material for a musical. And yet it succeeded and became one of the most popular musicals of all time. The film takes the same material and largely makes hash of it, focusing too much on creating these portraits of suffering to tell the story in any cohesive way. It’s still fine in the end, but that is mostly to the credit of the strength of the material and the talent of the cast..
In 1815, Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) is released from prison after spending nineteen years there for stealing a loaf of bread. He breaks the terms of his parole and disappears, trying to start a new life. Six years later, he has become a wealthy businessman and politician. But his former jailor Inspector Javert (Russell Crowe) has not given up on finding him. The movie follows Valjean as he tries to escape the wily inspector, along the way adopting the young daughter of a prostitute, and getting caught up with a group of young revolutionaries rebelling against the oppression of the king.
Much fuss has been made over the choice to have the actors sing live on set. But the more interesting choice in the movie is to have them sing in a more naturalistic way: to largely avoid theatrical technique, focusing more on the acting than the singing. This is an odd musical to try that with, because nothing about the musical is remotely naturalistic. Many of these songs are already pitched at the level of high opera, and having the actors choke through them seems counterintuitive. Still, the film sometimes hits on something exceptional. The performance bring new nuance to some of the songs, and in moments, the emotion can be astounding.
But since the film relies so much on individual performance, it can feel disjointed. Every scene is unique to the actors involved, with little holding the movie together. The film struggles to settle on a visual treatment, making each performance seem disconnected from the others. Though the film impresses with its high production values, it disappoints in many of its directorial choices. There’s little logic in the shot choices, the film often putting together several completely different styles of composition in the same scene, never establishing a sense of space or any sort of visual theme, apart from the overall dreary pallor cast on the entire movie. The listless direction severs all connective tissue between scenes, highlighting the musical’s narrative weaknesses. The character arcs feel flimsier, and the conflicts come off as a bit underdeveloped.
That said, this is still one of the greatest stories ever written, and the movie still manages to get the basic point across in spite of itself. Much credit must go to the cast, many of whom vividly bring these characters to life. Anne Hathaway deserves whatever plaudits she will garner over the next few months. Hugh Jackman, Amanda Seyfried and Eddie Redmayne do a fine enough job. Stage vets Samantha Barks and Aaron Tveit bring some of that experience to the screen, and it is much appreciated. Some of the other casting choices don’t work out so well: Russell Crowe is unable to evoke the same level of emotion through his singing, and Sacha Baron Cohen seems to think his character is beneath him.
Les Misérables serves to highlight how remarkable the stage musical actually is; how the unique staging and the use of tableau gives form to what is actually a pretty ramshackle telling of the novel’s story. Put into the language of film with dubious direction, some of the nuances of the story are lost. The film is so focused on delivering emotional bombast that it often forgets that there might be more to a scene than the relentless suffering of the characters. Given that, it still works sometimes, the performances generally strong enough to carry the scenes with them. The cast provides plenty of stellar moments. It’s just that the film isn’t able to bring those moments into a cohesive whole.