As a neophyte to the musical, I went into Les Misérables (2012) knowing only that its title translates from French into “The Miserable.” It’s an apt title; after three hours of filthy close-ups of oppressed people singing, I came out of the theater feeling pretty miserable.
The story is epic, though, covering a few decades of history in France during the 1800s. The focal point character is Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman), a prisoner released after nineteen years of hard labor for a minor infraction. Life as a free man proves almost as tough as slavery, though, which leads him to a desperate criminal act. When, for no reason, he’s unexpectedly forgiven his crime by a kindly religious man, Valjean vows to turn his life around — creating a new identity for himself with his stolen riches to help others. He takes pity on a poor worker named Fantine (Anne Hathaway), who’s ejected from his factory and forced into prostitution in a struggle to support her faraway daughter Cosette (who grows up to be Amanda Seyfried). Valjean’s attempts to help Fantine and Cosette are complicated at every turn by the pathologically lawful Javert (Russell Crowe)…and later, by greater events of history.
Whether or not you enjoy Les Misérables — closer to an opera than a musical, really — depends heavily on how much you enjoy the music. It will surprise nobody to hear that this music isn’t for me. Which isn’t to say the performers are poor; to me, anyway, the singing was effective: generally not theater-class, but close enough for rock ‘n’ roll. Anne Hathaway’s performance stands out. I did feel there was an imbalance between the vocal levels and the backing music; the orchestration takes a major back seat to the singing, which draws attention to the actor’s breaths and sniffles too much, and actually makes vastly dissimilar songs feel tonally identical at times.
But my main problem with the film was that there was no magic to it. I’m no expert on musicals, but when they work for me in the theater, there’s something special about how the stagecraft conjures cool effects — often through absence or through implication. This film version leaves nothing to the imagination. It’s full verisimilitude: every grimy pore and snotty nostril, every bloody wound and sewage-smeared face on display. (It makes the same mistake as Tim Burton’s Sweeney Todd, making everything explicit, reveling in its blood and guts…and sewage.) And while it leverages an impressive budget on sets, the sum is less than its parts; for all the epic scope of the piece, most of it is visually uninteresting: close-ups on singing faces, often without any context, without the artful mise-en-scène a well produced stage production will give you.
Reactions to this movie will vary wildly, of course, I think based on how invested you are in the source material. We were in a full theater that burst into applause at the end. To me, though, it was an extremely long, tonally monotonous slog — an impressive but relentlessly bleak story, nicely performed but not particularly well told.