Jeff Hersheway: 'Les Mis' Comes Out Strong, But Does Have Its Flaws

Beautiful cinematography enchants "Les Mis" but may be held back by some performances.

OK, let's get one thing straight: This movie, Les Miserables, loosely translates to, "The Miserable Ones." Now, with that being said, if you're going to see this movie, please realize that even though it is beautiful and enchanting in nature, it is one of the most depressing musical theater shows—and one of the most depressing novels—ever written. So imagine my dismay that right before the beginning credits begin to role, I hear my sister whisper to my mother, "Is this as depressing as The Phantom of the Opera?" 

Well, yes and no, I guess. If we're talking performances—well, Russell Crowe's performance—then yes, Les Miserables is just as abismal as Gerard Butler was in The Phantom of the Opera. However, as a fan of most musical theater, I adored Les Miserables, though it had its faults.

The film tells the story of Jean Valjean, played with seasoned finesse by Hugh Jackman, a man who skips on his parole and promises a friendly old bishop (played by none other than the original Valjean in the Broadway show, Colm Wilkinson) that he will become a better man in his quest for freedom.

Valjean's story arc is interesting, as he sees his life as one fluid motion in order to become an honest man. In hiding as the mayor of a French town, Valjean comes across the beautiful Fantine (Anne Hathaway), a woman forced into prostitution in order to care for her daughter, Cosette, who is living with two abusive innkeepers, the Thenardiers (Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter). 

Fantine falls ill from her constant abusive customers, and Valjean takes it upon himself to rescue her young daughter and care for her himself at Fantine’s passing. Raising Cosette has become his new destiny, as he sees it as a surefire way to accomplishing his goal of becoming an honest man. 

We flash forward about eight years later, and Cosette has become a woman (Amanda Seyfried)—a woman in love with a young French revolutionary, Marius (Eddie Redmayne). The couple falls for each other immediately, spawning jealousy in the now impoverished daughter of the Thenardiers, Eponine (Samantha Barks, being the only actress to translate from the stage version to the film adaptation). 

The audience is taken through a journey of a French uprising, showing the cold, unforgiving conditions of war, where no one is safe from the line of fire. The scenery of the film is cold, harsh, and definitely creates the vibe of the impoverished French area in which it is set. 

The direction of the film is impeccable. Tom Hooper (The King's Speech) creates stunning visuals in a lot of his various shots. The thing I liked most about his filming was that although everything was drab, dark and cast in a miserable light, there was always something beautiful to focus on. 

I admire the fact that Hooper decided to have the actors sing live while the crew filmed them—it added a depth to the musical adaptation that made it still seem like theater. Don't get me wrong, I liked musical adaptations such as Chicago, where the soundtrack was pre-recorded, but Hooper's formatting brought back a level often lost in the transition between stage and screen. Sure, sometimes it was a bit tedious to be staring some of the actors in constant close-up shots, but I do think in adding the live singing that it brought a sense of realism to the roles.

Speaking of which, most of the performances were impeccable in this film. One highlight that I'm sure you're all sick of hearing about but NEEDS TO BE REVELED IN is the beauty that is Anne Hathaway as Fantine. Never before, not even in some of the stage adaptations of this musical, have I seen Fantine played with such heart-breaking, tragic beauty. When watching the film I actually felt the pain that she was going through as Hathaway broke out into her character's signature piece, I Dreamed a Dream. Fantine experiences life through the worst possible situations, destroying any hope or will to fight on—only having the memory of her daughter continuing her plight through the slums of France.

Hugh Jackman is a marvelous Jean Valjean. Not as fantastic as Colm Wilkinson or some of the other Broadway originators, but he definitely put his own, unique spin on the role. His singing, at times, came out as shouting, especially in more of the softer songs like Bring Him Home. His acting, however, is superb. I'm still baffled the man can bend over backward and go from being a part of the X-Men to being a part of the cast for Les Mis.

Seyfried and Redmayne were very good as the star-crossed lovers Cosette and Marius. At some parts, Seyfried's voice came out weak, however, in comparison to everyone else. Although Cosette is not really supposed to have the strongest voice of the cast, Seyfried made her into a songbird—she had a beautiful voice, but a little too soft on some of her higher notes. Redmayne was phenomenal at his solo piece, Empty Chairs at Empty Tables—a performance that was almost comparable to Hathaway's. His pain was visable, and well-acted. Here is a man who has just lost all of his friends in an uprising, practically pleading with their ghosts to forgive him for living. Now that's heartbreak.

The Thenardiers were excellently played by Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen, displaying the ultimate comic relief in their peddling innkeeper characters. Cohen and Carter never miss a mark with their comedic timing, and play their roles with such brilliant underlying darkness that it's hard not to both crack up at the sight of them and be terrified of them at the same time. Samantha Barks, as to be expected, was phenomenal as their young daughter, Eponine, endlessly pining away for Redmayne's character, Marius. If anyone has ever felt like they've been "friend-zoned" by someone, take it up with Eponine. She took a bullet for a guy who got married to another girl in, like, a week. The beautiful Samantha Barks was probably one of my favorite actresses of the film, as unlike most of the actors, the audience went into the film knowing that Barks would be phenomenal, as she had already dominated the role of Eponine on Broadway. 

However, in every movie-musical cast there's one slip up in casting: Mamma Mia's Pierce Brosnan, The Phantom of the Opera's Gerard Butler, Rock of Ages' Alec Baldwin. The slip in casting was none other than Russell Crowe as Javert, Valjean's ever-pursuing parole officer. Now the first time I saw this film, I went in expecting Crowe to be terrible. With these goggles, I viewed his performance with a little suprise. "He's not that bad!" I said with naivety, "He could've done so much worse!"

And then my friends dragged me to Les Mis a second time. And lord, was he awful. Now, as a reminder to the readers, I am a self-proclaimed "Theatre Kid," so I know a good performance of Javert when I see one. And trust me, that wasn't it. Most of the problem was that Crowe played Javert with a pop voice, as if he were just cast in Mamma Mia. Sure, it would have been fine in that show, but Les Mis is a musical written in a more classical tone stylistically. Not to mention he sang a lot of his songs a few steps below where the actual pitch was. His rendition of Stars, a beautifully heart-wrenching song about Javert's own goal of trying to follow the law and be his own honest man, falls flat in Crowe's performance, ultimately containing two much of a contemporary, nasal voice. Crowe's acting, luckily, was much, much better. He played the Javert as an intimidating presence, with much determination and strength, but his singing almost ruins his character as it is misplaced in a musical containing classically trained performers such as Hathaway, Jackman and Barks. 

I can say with much assurance that Tom Hooper will definitely get on the ballot for Best Director this year at the Oscars, perhaps even win his second Academy Award for Best Director. As for the performers, I pray that Hathaway becomes a Best Supporting Actress nominee—although her role in the film, in comparison to the other players, was minor. The performances are better than expected in Les Mis, but we should hope for more when it comes to casting supposedly multi-talented actors. Les Miserables boasts beautiful cinematography, capturing the misery of the French slums while retaining the magic of the original stage show. Only time will tell if Hooper's experimental tactics in adapting this musical will pay off in the Oscar race.

Grade: B

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