Movie Review: Les Miserables
I wouldn’t call musical theater a passion of mine. It was, much like my Babylon 5 fandom, something that I married into. My wife, she’s the big musical nut in our family, and Les Miserables is her second favorite musical, and she’d probably hate it if I started ripping this show to shreds. So saying that the film adaptation of Les Mis had a lot to live up to is a bit of an understatement. I’m not saying that I don’t like musicals (hell, I’ve written reviews of several broadway shows here at GFBR), but I can’t tell you what any musical terms mean and people randomly bursting into song is a strange-ass thing to me. So it was with some hesitance that I sat down to watch Les Mis. That hesitance was completely unjustified, as the film is an incredible achievement… with a few caveats.
Les Miserables tells the story of Jean Valjean, a man living before and during the time of the June Rebellion. After being imprisoned for nearly twenty years for stealing a loaf of bread for his sister’s kids, Valjean tries to make a new life for himself but meets difficulty. After a chance meeting with a kind Bishop, Valjean creates a new identity for himself but it’s not long before his past catches up with him. The years that follow will see Valjean as a father, crossing paths with the revolution, and being the best goddamned human being ever.
I think part of my issue with musicals is that I often have trouble discerning what someone is saying in song (for years I though Bruce Springsteen was saying “champs like us” in Born to Run. I…uh…thought it was about sports, I guess.) and Les Mis is almost all sung. Despite this, I had little problem understanding the plot and what the character motivations were. A big reason for that is how excellent all the vocalists are in this film. Anne Hathaway as Fantine is incredible. Yeah, all those award nominations that she’s receiving? Totally justified. She manages to sing fantastically and imbues her character with the most agonizing sadness. What little time she has on screen is completely captivating.
Hugh Jackman is no stranger to musical theater, having starred in a production of Oklahoma, among others. As Valjean Jackman is just as great as you might expect. As the lead of the show, Jackman’s singing is pretty great (though, like everyone else, overshadowed by Hathaway) and he more than amply carries the show. I’m a pretty big fan of Jackman from his turns as Wolverine in the X-Men films and other films like The Prestige, so I was glad to see him as Valjean. I was surprised at how much I liked the Valjean character and Jackman’s likeability had a lot to do with that.
Russell Crowe on the other hand… well… perhaps the best thing I can say about his Inspector Javert is that he’s not as bad as Pierce Brosnan was in Mamma Mia. Crowe’s physicality and presence lend Javert an impressive presence on screen, it’s just that his singing isn’t up to par with the other actors. Even Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter as the Thenardiers, the scheming con-artists that care for Fantine’s child Cosette (played by Amanda Seyfried as an adult) early in the film, manage to be more impressive vocally. It doesn’t hurt that Cohen and Carter add some much needed levity to the depressing story.
I quite enjoyed my time with Les Mis, and I couldn’t stop thinking about the characters, the themes, and songs long after I left the theater. It’s a great musical, but incredibly depressing. I’ll fully admit that the final minutes of the film were enough to make my eyes tear up. Great performances, a strong ensemble, fantastic cinematography, and an inspired story make Les Miserables a terrific choice to see.