This year’s musical Oscar bait comes in the form of Tom Hooper’s adaptation of the award winning stage musical Les Misérables. There has been a barrage of promotion for the film, so unless you somehow exist beyond all manner of popular culture, you must have some idea of the anticipation surrounding the film. Set in 19th Century France, it follows convict Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) over a period of 17 years as he endures a course of trials and tribulations regarding his faith, doing what is good, fatherhood and not least the incessant pursuit of him by the relentless Javert (Russell Crowe).
As I am not familiar with the source material in any way, I am not at liberty to say whether or not it is a good adaptation. However it is a good film. Just to iterate further; it is good, not great. Yes, it’s easy to get swept away in the epic grandeur and melodrama that is inevitable with a musical that has such an epic backdrop, which includes the June Rebellion in Paris. However, the film is riddled with flaws, mainly due to some of the main performances as well as stylistic directorial decisions.
There is a distinct sense that Tom Hooper really, really wants you to know that this is a film; that it is vital that this adaptation of the beloved stage show is justified. Thus we get sweeping camera panning and a constant emphasis on landscape, landscape, landscape as if to say “see, this is film, not stage; film!” Despite this, no matter how hard he tries it’s hard to avoid little hints that this was in fact made for the stage, particularly in the Parisian scenes toward the end of the film. Additionally, the tendency for up close and personal camera angles can be slightly jarring to say the least. As the camera zooms closer and closer to an actor’s face while they croon intensely down the lens, as if their heart felt lamenting is directed towards the audience, it can be slightly difficult to stifle one’s giggles.
Speaking of stifling one’s giggles, it’s time to address the film’s ultimate failing; that being a handful of the main performances. It’s not that that any were exceptionally bad, however it’s not the best sign when you cant take the majority of the characters seriously for much of the film. This is especially the case with Hugh Jackman and Russell Crowe, which is a pity because Jackman himself is actually very good. It’s Crowe’s strained performance that reflects badly on Jackman’s efforts. He takes what is evidently meant to be an epic rivalry and turns it into a laughable conquest over a measly loaf of bread. It was difficult to believe in the sincerity of their interactions; and unfortunately their interactions make up the majority of the film.
On a positive note, Anne Hathaway more than proves herself as being worthy of all the accolades that will surely soon be flung at her throughout this award season. She is only on screen for a brief amount of time which is striking considering how much she outshines the rest of the cast. If her rendition of I Dreamed a Dream doesn’t leave you the least bit misty eyed, I question your humanity. Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen also excel in their respective roles. It’s nice that they work since they are actually supposed to be the comic relief.
Fundamentally, your enjoyment of Les Misérables is going to depend on just how far you can suspend your disbelief. Even if you’re an avid musical lover it may be difficult to ignore some of the more glaring imperfections. Despite all of that though, the film still manages to provide an entertaining, engaging experience that has no qualms about tugging at your heartstrings.