Les Misérables is, at once, one of the most engrossing, emotionally realized, and overwhelming theatrical experiences of the last decade. Many parts of it are so grandiose and spectacular that few words exist to describe how memorable they are; others are baffling and confusing. Still others are almost horrid mistakes. Its complexities and intricacies are many, but in the end, Les Mis stands as a fantastically beautiful film that should have been the best picture of the year.
The film's primary (and most engaging) narrative is the story of Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman), prisoner 24601, recently paroled after nineteen years in prison for stealing a loaf of bread. After his parole, his treatment and exclusion almost forces him to be a criminal in order to survive, leading him to steal silver from a church. Rather than condemn him, the priest instead takes pity on Valjean and gives him the silver, on the condition that he use it to become an honest man. Horrified by how low he had sunk and touched by this gesture, Valjean resolves to become just that.
Hugh Jackman deserves to win best actor at this year's Academy Awards for this role. He is absolutely amazing as the tormented Jean Valjean, even after he skips out on parole and is living a good life he is still on the run, still afraid, bitter, angry, and uncaring. Jackman infuses all of these layers into his performance, creating a character that is utterly captivating. His voice is equally amazing, his singing digging deep to the core of the character. His evolution from selfish to selfless, and his redemption for his crimes, all brought to life effortlessly by Jackman's brilliant performance.
Equally moving is Russell Crowe as Inspector Javert, an inspired bit of casting on the part of Tom Hooper, which has drawn some ire from some circles but is a tremendous success. Though clearly not as musically inclined as the castmates around him, Crowe plays Javert's dedication to finding the escaped 24601 with zeal and hunger. He vanishes into the role and is effortless, and gives a performance that was sadly overlooked this awards season. His Inspector is firm, cold, and unforgiving, and played wonderfully so.
Hooper does a fantastic job blending the need for strong performances with the emotional singing, not content to just let one side or the other do the job. With such wonderful music, it could have been easy to allow it to elicit the emotion, but many of the performers blend it seamlessly with deep, visceral performances that complement each other beautifully. Despite how beautiful and memorable the music in Les Misérables is, it is the acting performances that are more noteworthy; when everything in this film is mixed together, each component complements the other and makes it shine, from the brilliant set design, the costumes, singing, acting, and music. Had any one of these elements at all failed, the film would have been disastrous.
Anne Hathaway will almost certainly walk away with an Oscar for best supporting actress for her portrayal of Fantine. While this is a truly great performance, the film nearly falls apart during her rendition of "I Dreamed a Dream" for a few reasons. Hooper pushes the camera in close, allowing all of Fantine's raw despair and anguish to pour from the screen. She has a fantastic voice, but frankly Hathaway mugs the camera during the song, and she goes a little bit overboard in her performance toward the end- she is utterly perfect through most of it. More than this, the scene demands such emotional investment (between the performance, the close-up, and the song itself) that it becomes almost overwhelming. The film takes some time before it returns to the level of emotion displayed here, leading to a kind of slump that drags through the film. It's as if this were the complete focus of all of Hooper's efforts, and it feels too much like awards bait.
Nine years later, the film truly hits its stride as the tides of revolution wash in; the microcosm that was Valjean's treatment early in the film becomes the experience of all the poor in France. Éponine (Samantha Barks) is grown up and is desperately in love with Marius (Eddie Redmayne), but he is oblivious to this fact. Compound that with the fact that he and Cosette (Amanda Seyfried) fall madly in love with one another from the moment they see one another, and that Marius is swept up in the struggle for freedom alongside Enjolras (Aaron Tveit). For the final ninety minutes, the film builds and builds to a magnificent climax, both in plot and in its characterizations. Redmayne in particular gives an astounding performance as Marius, especially with his brilliant rendition of "Empty Chairs at Empty Tables." Mind-blowing isn't apt enough a description.
Inevitably, Les Misérables has so many amazing moments it would be nearly impossible to recount them all. It is a film that demands multiple viewings. The music is brilliant, the voices singing it crafting each note with heart-wrenching honesty and emotion. That Tom Hooper, fresh off his win for his amazing work in The King's Speech, was ignored for a nomination for best director at the Oscars is criminal (despite it being a very crowded category).
It should have been the best picture of the year- in many ways, it is. Yet its pacing and length detract from what would have otherwise been a masterpiece of an offering. Too much screentime is wasted on the Thénardiers, between Helena Bonham Carter's wardrobe and Sacha Baron Cohen's ridiculous French accent (the only one in a film set in France). Still, from the moment Enjolras begins singing "Do you Hear the People Sing?" the film's pace thunders forward, finally re-capturing the emotional wave that had roared in when Hathaway belted out the film's most recognizable tune. It is a shame that wave too long receded, and that Hathaway's is the most talked-about performance in the film. From the very beginning to the end, this film belongs to Hugh Jackman, and his is the kind of performance that absolutely transforms a great work into something spectacular. Four and a half out of Five Stars.
By Nicholas Haskins
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