The nominations: Picture, Actor, Supporting Actress, Costume Design, Makeup and Hairstyling, Original Song, Production Design, Sound Mixing
The film: France, 1815. Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) has just been released from prison on after serving nineteen years by prison guard Javert (Russell Crowe). Because he must present his papers that elaborate him as a dangerous former inmate (when he only stole a loaf of bread to feed his sister’s starving family), every town he seeks shelter in turns him away. He is finally offered food and shelter at a church by the kindly Bishop of Digne but he decides to steal the silver and runs off. He is caught by the police and presented with the stolen silver to the Bishop who tells the authorities that the silver was a gift to Valjean. Moved by the Bishop’s forgiveness, Valjean breaks his parole and vows to begin a completely new life under a secret identity as an honest man who will show the same grace towards others.
Eight years later, Valjean is a respected factory owner and mayor of Montreuil-sur-Mer. A young factory worker named Fantine (Anne Hathaway) is fired by the factory foreman after she is discovered to have an illegitimate daughter named Cosette by a lover who abandoned her and only took the job to pay the wretched innkeepers the Thénardiers (Sacha Baron-Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter). Meanwhile, Javert arrives in town and, after witnessing an incident with the incognito Valjean rescuing a trapped worker, accuses Valjean as being Valjean and not Monsieur Madeleine. Javert quickly retracts his accusation after his superiors scold him for affronting such a descent man as the mayor, but Valjean already feels the guilt and indeed confesses to his true identity. Desperate to support Cosette, Fantine sells her hair and her teeth and resorts to prostitution to find money. Remembering his vow, Valjean rescues her from the streets and has Fantine hospitalized. Before Fantine dies, Valjean promises to rescue Cosette from the Thénardiers. He pays the unscrupulous couple a great deal of money and rushes the young girl away just before Javert, now a police inspector, has caught up to Valjean.
Nine years later in Paris, Valjean and the now grown Cosette (Amanda Seyfried) live quiet and hidden away, Valjean insistent that Cosette know nothing of her mother or his past. General Lamarque, a government official sympathetic to the poor, is on his deathbed. A group of young students discuss possible revolution knowing the fate of the poor will be bad after Lamarque’s death. Enjolras (Aaron Tveit) and Marius (Eddie Redmayne) are enlisting supporters for their cause in the street when Marius sees the beautiful Cosette and the two fall instantly in love. Marius begs his friend Éponine, who is secretly in love with Marius herself, to find out who Cosette is. Éponine finds Cosette’s home and brings Marius, watching in sadness as they make their love vows. With the revolution brewing, Valjean makes plans to take Cosette off to America. When Lamarque dies, the revolution begins at the General’s funeral. Marius, certain of his own death, has Éponine deliver a goodbye letter to Cosette. When Valjean reads the earnest love letter, he has another crisis of conscience and vows to save young Marius’s life for Cosette.
The odds: Les Misérables the musical has, over the years, been built up so much within pop-culture as some grand, operatic masterpiece that should absorb awards just for existing in any and every iteration that comes to fruition. Indeed the original epic novel by French Romantic author Victor Hugo that tells the tale of one of literature’s great heroes Jean Valjean is tremendous to say the least. The original Broadway production of the musical did win eight Tonys, and this new film version helmed by The King’s Speech director Tom Hooper is plenty award worthy. Having said all that though, there still is a fundamental disconnect from novel to stage and those problems are magnified greatly with this film production of the musical. Hugo’s novel was highly detailed and meditative which presents the initial dilemma: how do you create a musical out of story that spends the vast majority of its time listening to its characters think? Its an important thing to remember that the great motive behind any filmmaker wanting to adapt a stage musical to the screen should only ever be to expand to the story through breaking the limitations of the stage, otherwise its just producers looking to line their pockets. Case in point, the musical is literally people standing around on grand set pieces singing…and unfortunately so is the film. Hooper, still riding high on his Oscar win over the more deserving David Fincher two years ago, attempts to pack the film with opulence and innovation and succeeds for the most part; the magnitude of the sets are as detailed and spectacular as they are expected to be and the concept of live singing turns out remarkably well giving a grace and spontaneity to the narrative aspects that pre-recorded singing usually covers up. But the grandeur wears thin so quickly, vanishing completely after the first forty minutes if not for a handful of heartbreaking albeit lovely melodies.
Indeed the reason to start watching this movie is to watch the tremulous Anne Hathaway as the destitute Fantine conquer the musical’s most famous song “I Dreamed a Dream” with the misery it deserves, unlike more rousing renditions like the fame-making moment for Susan Boyle. After that the film drudges along, the music sounds good despite the mawkish nature of most of the tunes, the massive choral numbers being the most satisfying the most satisfying like “Do You Hear the People Sing?” and “One Day More.” If there’s any reason to keep watching through the end is the surprisingly beautiful rendition of the mournful “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables” by Eddie Redmayne’s tragic revolutionary Marius. All of the other great talent are relegated to less fabulous roles. Sacha Baron-Cohen’s performance of “Master of the House” is wan and flavorless, a tragedy considering his singing talent; the same is true for Amanda Seyfried’s Cosette and Samantha Bank’s Eponine. Transversely Hugh Jackman’s Valjean and Russell Crowe’s Inspector Javert are honed in on incessantly, not that they shouldn’t be as the main characters but their presence, that is their singing talents, sounds so constipated its almost not worth listening to. Jackman having won a Tony for the musical The Boy from Oz makes him ripe for a big juicy singing role like this, the actor appearing constantly needy to prove just how golden his pipes really are; ironically he sounds strained even with the power and soul he pours into it. Jackman isn’t nominated for his performance, he’s nominated for the role that is fodder for accolades. I’m too embarrassed for Russell Crowe to elaborate except to say that all those months of voice lessons were for nothing, proving that he can’t do everything, not to mention the horribly oafish costumes he was stuffed into. (Personally I would have loved to see the singing talents of Gerard Butler and Patrick Wilson in these roles as their singing talents, which far exceed those of Jackman and Crowe, were wasted on the pandering and maudlin 2004 adaptation of The Phantom of the Opera.)
Of all the Best Picture nominee, Les Misérables, as deserving as it is by way of technical innovation and one Anne Hathaway is simply there for the idea of it; it is the weakest of the films up for the big prize. I happily and willingly applaud its shining moments and the achievements of magnitude, but I can’t in good conscience call it anything other than what it is: masturbatory. No doubt Hathaway will win as she has at all the other awards shows, but it will win at little else if anything, put up for these awards out of respect for the material but mostly the obvious shear number of Les Miz fans in AMPAS.