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“Les Miserables” is a rather personal film. The camera is constantly in the face of its actors, and when it strains too far from the close-ups the authenticity seems to fade away. Any sort of wide shot appears (very obviously) computer generated, from the very first perspective of Jean Valjean(Hugh Jackman) looking up at Javert(Russell Crowe) perched on a stone wall in the rain at the beginning of the film. Perhaps this is why the camera quickly returns to a cozier place. Any shot beyond where the camera can naturally focus reminds the viewer that his film’s location is only as sprawling as the artificial walls of the set that contains it. Venture out any further than that, and the computers take over.
Of course, the talk of the film has been Anne Hathaway’s Fantine, and her stripped-down, very intimate rendition of “I Dreamed a Dream.” Hathaway has a lovely voice, which has been proven at a previous Oscar telecast, and she puts her all into the scene. However, it is marred a bit by the hype. Even with the camera as close as it is, Fantine’s eyes never connect with it, which is distracting. As a viewer, one might be wondering if she was concentrating on avoiding eye contact with the camera. With the goal of a raw, natural dynamic, it might have done the scene wonders to throw some fleeting glances into the mix.
Once Cosette grows up, “Les Miserables” starts to feel a little long in the tooth. The dynamic between her and Marius feels like teenage angst set to music. Far more interesting is Eponine’s fateful love for Marius that will never be returned. Her final scene involves a rain cloud that only appears to be over her head at first: rain soaks her hair and face while everyone else is dry. Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter play the Thenardier couple, injecting some humor into the film each time they pop up in a scene. Their characters almost seem silly and a little lacking in depth, but the two are a welcome site for viewers who feel like they could doze off at any moment.
“Les Miserables” is a mixed bag that is hard to sit through. There have been a slew of lengthy releases within the last month; “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” and “Django Unchained” both danced a little closer to the three-hour runtime, but neither of those films had this reviewer getting antsy in his seat. The choice to have every actor sing each take live is an ambitious and respectable one, and it doesn’t hurt the film. But at the same time, it’s hard to argue that it really improves the film. At one point near the end of the film, Jackman’s voice sounds a little raspy, and for a moment the viewer has to wonder if all those takes were starting to take its toll. Or perhaps one would be mistaken. But the viewer might find many such little distractions when it should be the story they are focusing on. “Les Miserables” is ambitiously performed, oddly framed, and ultimately fails when it comes to packing an emotional punch. And the two-hour, thirty-seven minute runtime feels an hour longer than that. If a character is on his or her last breath, why do they need to repeat the chorus two more times?