Aneesh Chaganty

Les Misérables | MAD Review

In Uncategorized on December 27, 2012 at 7:52 AM

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Les Misérables 

(2012, UK, d. Tom Hooper)

You may have already seen this film. And judging by the numbers, you’re probably going to at one point or another. Amidst incredible word-of-mouth and strong critical reception, Les Mis is sure to be a contender during every awards show this season. However, I wasn’t crazy about it. And I’ll tell you why.

Let me start off with the good things. I fully believe that director Tom Hooper was able to make the best version of Les Mis with the resources he had. I’ve been a fan of Hooper ever since his HBO/John Adams days. His ability to convey character and pain amidst daunting historical backdrops is very impressive and The King’s Speech still remains one of the best films I’ve ever seen. 

If there’s one thing that makes this modern rendition worthy, it’s Hooper’s attention to character. From the opening frame to the last, you can’t help but get the feeling that you, as an audience member, are in safe hands. Furthermore, every moment furthers the characters’ narratives. Hooper didn’t just accept the play as it was; there are new parts to this film that aren’t in the play. He makes sure that every scene is a clear motivation for character and that attention to detail really pays off.  

Continuing on, the actors that play these characters are a wonder. Let’s start at the top. Hugh Jackman has never been better. Finally, he’s given the chance to prove his acting chops as Jean Valjean, an ex-convict who turns his life around. I didn’t even have much of a problem with Russell Crowe, who plays Javert, a hard-nosed cop on the lookout for Valjean. Sure Crowe wasn’t blessed with a beautiful voice, but what he lacked in octaves he made up for in performance. Amanda Seyfried, Sacha Baron Cohen, Eddie Redmayne, Helena Bonham Carter, and Samantha Barks were all wonderful additions to the cast. But it’s really Fantine (Anne Hathaway) who steals the show.

Her one-take rendition of “I Dreamed A Dream” will sweep you off your feet. Period. In one song, Hathaway rises above Fantine’s little screen time to make the biggest impression on the film. Right then, I looked to those who I was watching the film with and thought, This is going to go down as one of the most memorable scenes in cinema.

But it doesn’t stop there. Les Mis is scattered with moments that will take your breath away. From a technical standpoint, there’s very little wrong with the film. Its production design, costumes, hair and makeup, visual effects, and sound design all advance the emotion behind the story in wondrous ways. 

But why didn’t I like it? 

The biggest problem Les Mis has is overcoming the source material. I’m very familiar with the stage musical, which is one of the best of all time, but I went in to the film judging it as a film alone, rather than a reincarnation.

I didn’t think the material deserved a movie adaptation. And I don’t mean “deserved” in the sense of “the stage version is too good to be adapted” but I mean it in the sense of “the stage version’s script was written for the stage, not the screen”. The two are far too similar.

What works on the stage – easily transitioning between low-brow humor, dark contemplation, rousing patriotism, tender love, and heart-wrenching sacrifice (with only a few lines of unsung dialogue) –  doesn’t work on screen. For me, it was too jarring. From an emotional standpoint, it was unfamiliar territory and from a tonal standpoint, it was far too inconsistent. And once it loses you, it’s hard to catch up. 

I’ll be clear though: Hooper, in my opinion, deserves as much credit for the film as he’s receiving. It really is a wonderful movie. There were moments that made me tear up, laugh out loud, fear, and feel more than I have in recent films. The performances alone are worth the price of admission (and the running time). But you have to be ready for this movie. You have to know what you’re getting into. And if you’re a fan of the musical and want to just see it on screen, you will love this film.

Be prepared. You’re not watching something that’s set in reality (even despite the music). You’re watching something grander. Something more profound. Something only Les Mis can do. But with that comes its caveats. It’s not for everyone.

But I really wish it was. 

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