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Les Miserables

February 7, 2013
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I actually saw this film weeks ago. Writing this review now is really only an exercise in writing. At least I don’t have the burden of influencing anyone’s opinion now.

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An admission before we get much further. I haven’t seen Les Mis the musical and I certainly haven’t read the book so all this was very new to me (minus scraps of songs that been sun in medley at me).

So Valjean (Hugh Jackman) is an ex-convict who violates his parole to start a new life. With a little help from a kindly priest, he does quite well and becomes wealthy and well-respected. However, that doesn’t stop Javert (Rusell Crowe) the policeman from tracking him down. There is some singing. In order to pay for her daughter, Cosette’s, upkeep, Fantine (Anne Hathaway) sells her hair, her teeth and her body and then dies. Not before Valjean sweeps in to promise to raise Cosette as his own child. More singing, and running away from Javert.

Flashforward to revolutionary Paris, and Cosette has grown into an attractive young beauty (and Amanda Seyfried as it happens). She catches the eye of Marius (Eddie Redmayne), a student and one of the leaders of the incipient rebellion, who falls instantly in love. They do some singing through a garden gate. Then there’s fighting…and some more singing.

From the first tease of a trailer half a year, this has been billed as a spectacle of cinema, a celluloid occasion of some renown. The film does manage to carry that off. Everything is certainly dramatic enough, even without the singing. The singing pushes it over into Drama (that’s with a capital D). The downside of this is that it’s a bit on the long side and begins to outstay its welcome.

Without the singing, I reckon they could have wrapped it up in an hour and a half, easy.

For me, this is a film about Valjean and Javert. Everything else that happens is window-dressing. The contrast between their differing philosophies propels the film along with a beautifully delicious dramatic climax. Is a man a criminal all his life, marked indelibly by his crimes, as Javert argues? Or (with the power of love) can a man find redemption and bring good after bad, as Valjean is inclined to believe? For me at least, it’s very Old vs. New Testament.

Despite the weight given to the Paris rebellion of 1832 in the latter half of the film, these aspects fall a bit flat for me. Cosette, while pretty, has the character of a wet dishcloth. Marius is twice as bad, firstly, for being so smitten, and second, for being carried away from common sense by passion along with the other students. At no point does the rebellion ever look like a good idea. And they go at it anyway!

Spoiler alert: Everybody dies. Except those that don’t. But everyone sings.

Another plume in this film’s chapeau is the all-star cast assembled for the chorus line. It ranks at 7.8 on the Love Actually scales of how many names are in it. Everyone puts in a good effort, probably contemplating their chances at the Oscars later this month. What was refreshing however was the quality of the singing. Being admittedly tone deaf, I’d say Russell Crowe was the worst vocalist and even he gave a solid few verses. I’m…impressed.

Well, more beaten into submission that impressed. There is just so much singing that all resistance is futile. It’s good, and I understand that’s how this musical works, but there’s just so much of it! My opinion is singing everything diminishes the impact of the things that really needed to be sung. It’s the same reason I don’t add ketchup to all my meals.

In summary, this is a good film. A great film. One that is certain to clean up at the Oscars. But two and a half hours of near-constant singing, it is one that requires a great deal of enthusiasm or patience.

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