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LES MISÉRABLES

Reviews
by Leonard Maltin
December 25, 2012 1:05 AM
32 Comments
  • |
Anne Hathaway-Hugh Jackman-485
© 2012 Universal Studios

As an ardent fan of the musical stage play Les Misérables and its vibrant songs, I had high hopes for this elaborate screen adaptation. I’m sorry to report that I came away disappointed. It would take a lot to completely spoil the material, but I never felt the surge of emotion that the play engenders. In fact, I think the movie, for all its pomp and production values, offers a diminished experience. I realize that most moviegoers won’t be comparing the two presentations, but after 25 years of international stage success I don’t think I’m out of line. In the theater one doesn’t need to see hundreds of soldiers with bayonets or a literal construction of the barricades to feel their impact. The movie has all of that and more, but director Tom Hooper doesn’t subscribe to the “less is more” school of thought. This movie offers more of more, and I didn’t care for it..

Victor Hugo’s story is unimpeachable, but there is still room for interpretation. Hugh Jackman’s Jean Valjean is adequate, but his emotional journey is more told than felt. The more serious problem is Russell Crowe as his adversary. It has nothing to do with his singing voice; Javert is supposed to be unyielding, almost inhuman (think of Charles Laughton in the 1935 Hollywood movie). Here, he is merely stiff.

Everyone tries his or her best, and some succeed more than others. Sacha Baron Cohen is amusing as M. Thenardier, but Hooper is so insistent on showing us closeups and cutaways of his pickpocketing and such in the lively “Master of the House” number that we never get a sense of the setting. Where’s the establishing shot? (Helena Bonham Carter, as the equally larcenous Madame Thenardier, has played this kind of role a few times too often, I fear, and doesn’t have the vocal chops to put over her part of the song.)

On the other hand, Anne Hathaway’s rendition of the beautiful “I Dreamed a Dream” is shot in one long, continuous, ultra-closeup, and I’m not sure that’s a good choice, either. Do we have to see an actress’ tears, and tonsils, to experience her pain? I never felt cheated when I watched this number onstage.

The show has one other great advantage over the movie: an intermission. Not only does it provide a much-needed break (something today’s filmmakers should seriously consider) but it gives the show an opportunity to stage a stirring first-act finale with the anthem “One Day More.” The movie uses cinematic means to show us how each major character is preparing for the next chapter of the story, but offers no release. We must remain seated as the movie goes on. And on.

Eddie Redmayne-Samantha Barks-325
Photo by James Fisher - Courtesy of Universal Pictures

As for the much-vaunted, overhyped process of having the actors perform their songs “live” on camera, I can only respond by saying, “big deal.” There’s nothing wrong with the process, but did you feel cheated when Gene Kelly warbled “Singin’ in the Rain” or Julie Andrews sang “A Spoonful of Sugar” in the conventional movie way? Me neither. (For a devastating response to this puffery by bona fide theater people, click HERE

There are some moving scenes, and some of the songs are well realized. I was particularly impressed with Eddie Redmayne, whose acting and singing as Marius is, for me, the highlight of the film.

But I’m discouraged that yet another Broadway/West End musical hit has been somewhat trampled, lost in translation from stage to screen. I never would have imagined Chicago without its bawdy humor or Sweeney Todd without a knockout rendition of “The Worst Pies in London.” Yet that’s what is cemented in cinema history as representative of those memorable musical plays. It’s our loss.  

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32 Comments

  • SL Shoemaker | March 10, 2013 8:16 PMReply

    I never saw Le Mis before the movie... and I have never been so moved by a movie before. Actually, Schinder's List and Saving Rivate Ryan had huge emotional impacts on me, where like Le Mis I had to compose myself before leaving the theater... but, only with Le Mis did I break down again before getting to the car, where I had to compose myself a second time, before driving home... One of the best movies I have ever seen, and the most emotionally grabbing. And by far the best movie musical I have ever seen. You're my favorite critic... but I do not agree.

  • Daniel Maloy | January 30, 2013 9:50 PMReply

    I have to disagree with you on this one. I feel that Hooper and company were attempting to make the audience feel like they were a part of the film. This type of realism is difficult to come by, especially in a musical. The close-ups, in my opinion, added to the emotion of the piece (especially "I dreamed a dream," and "Empty chairs and empty tables." Taking this musical and adapting it into a film was a risky choice to begin with - and I think that the filmmakers did a fine job. As far as the "inability" of some actors to sing - this made the story even more realistic. Not everyone can sing well. I think that the mistakes in singing helped us as audience members to relate to the characters, which is the point of the story in the first place.

  • Robert Wilson | January 28, 2013 8:21 AMReply

    Mr. Maltin, I think you're the best movie critic out there but I disagree with your assessment of this film. I thought it to be jaw-dropping wonderful. Russell Crowe was a poor choice but I thought that to be a minor flaw.

  • A.B. | January 21, 2013 9:42 PMReply

    I just want to say that I agree with you, sir, and I have complete faith in your ability and taste. I also know that you (as I do) have a thorough knowledge of the heritage of this, a musical film. Are we to go from the glittering movie musicals of the 30's, the vibrant and lavish movie musicals of the 40's and 50's, and the epic (and yes, sometimes overdone but mostly enjoyable) movie musicals of the 60's and 70's to this? There are men who spent years perfecting how to craft and shoot a musical/musical number. And it's like Tom Hooper threw it all out the window.

  • Loralee | January 15, 2013 6:52 PMReply

    The best piece of real theater I've seen in a long time. Your 'talent or skill' as a reviewer are diminishing Mr. Maltin. Sadly, some people cannot think for themselves and must hang on to the words of a 'celebrity movie reviewer'.

  • Norman | January 15, 2013 11:51 AMReply

    HUZZAH! Once again, you have articulated EXACTLY how Ifelt about this movie. As a stage actor and Broadway musical buff AND a movie buff, I really wanted to like this movie and not carry any preconceived notions into the theater with me. But I was just totally bored and disappointed. I found the long continuous shots excruciating, and I missed the musical power of the stage production. But I have to say I love how divided people are about this film. Many of my friends thought it was brilliant! Everybody seems to have gotten something different from the experience.

  • Nancy | January 6, 2013 4:46 PMReply

    I totally agree with you! Thank you! I love the play, and because of that I found the film palatable, but I found it quite uneven.

  • Eddie | January 2, 2013 1:14 PMReply

    Mr. Martin. I thought the film was wonderful! My question to you is do you ever read and respond to the comments of your readers? Seems they do not agree with you here.

  • Christopher | December 30, 2012 10:24 AMReply

    Again just why i watch this guy . Anything he does not like i know will be outstanding.and i will ove every minute of it . As i did this movie .Have seen the 1987 London production.I watched this movie i laughed i cried and i was moved.the best thing i have seen on film.Par for the course he has no idea what he is talking about.

  • Duane | December 29, 2012 9:54 PMReply

    Well, Leornard, to each their own. I loved the theater version and loved the movie. I would suggest that people go see it and make up their own minds. The fact the singers sang live did make a difference, to the good. And where you saw tonsils, I saw a remarkable rendition of a song that I thought was great made absolutely unforgettable.

  • Brian | December 29, 2012 12:13 PMReply

    I disagree Leonard and I prepared for the movie by watching two previous MOVIE productions of 1935 and 1952 with Frederick March and Michael Renee respectively. I have never seen a stage production and think it erroneous to compare. I think all the actors sang great and take exception to the critics lambasting Russell Crowe. I usually agree with your taste but think you have missed the mark here.

  • -- | December 28, 2012 12:47 PMReply

    Maltin has poor taste. He should sit through acting classes to truly understand just how great of an accomplishment this piece of work is. Sad.

  • Chris | December 28, 2012 11:51 AMReply

    Having seen the stage musical 11 times, (London, New, York, and Chicago) I went into the movie version not expecting much. I personally thought the film was better then I thought it was going to be. Were the performances better or worse then the stage musical? Well some performances were really good like "Empty Chairs and Empty Tables." while others were sort of ho-hum like "Master of the House." I do not think Hugh Jackman had the range needed for a solid performance of "Bring Him Home" but his other songs were great. Young Cosette was really good in the film version. I could have done without Anne Hathaway's performance and all the stage actresses did a better job in my opinion. Russell Crow surprised me and I think with a little more stage experience he would of put his performance into an elite level.
    Overall, I would rate this movie adaptation about the 5th best overall version of the musical that I have seen.

  • Ryan | December 27, 2012 2:27 PMReply

    The movie was amazing,everyone was amazing except rusell crow who was good. Anne Hathaway will win an Oscar.

  • Roberta | December 27, 2012 10:50 AMReply

    I enjoyed the movie and felt moved by most of the acting/singing. Two disappointments came in Russell Crowe's lack of passion (he looked bored at times) and the singing style of the actress who played Cosette. However Empty Chairs and Empty Tables stole the show. With the world so fractioned and troubled how can anyone hearing this not be affected. And finally a pleasant surprise was Hugh Jackman. He did Jean Valjean as well as any of the actors I've seen.

  • Mitch | December 27, 2012 2:50 AMReply

    Thank you, thank you, Thank you....you are so correct in your review of this mess of a film. I think the people involved in the production sucked the life out of Les Miz. I am a fan of the Musical and approached the film with some trepidation but with an open mind. From the opening scene I became quickly bored and what gave me goose bumps from the stage productions, gave way to constance eye rolling for me. The director didn't really know his way around a musical other than creating a two and half hour 80's MTV music video. The editing was like watching a Jerry Bruckheimer action flick and the hand held, wide angled cinematography was very jarring and almost made me nauseous. The film will make money from repeated viewing from overly devoted fans who will be defending this Les Mess, but I won't be one of them.

  • Ben | December 27, 2012 2:05 AMReply

    I thought the movie was great and I've never seen the musical. I thought Tom Hooper's camera work was good and helped capture the emotion well. From the applause in the theater I think everyone else enjoyed it too.

  • Julia | December 27, 2012 12:11 AMReply

    I saw "Les Mis" on the London stage about 10 years ago and was blown away by the performances. I loved this film, too. Many critics seem to be treating a modern film version of what has been the darling of the stage in condescending and apologetic terms. There is no need for that.

    Just as two different media can be used to capture the same topic or scene effectively, Victor Hugo's novel is big enough to translate well on film and stage. The film doesn't take huge liberties with the story and it doesn't misrepresent or misinterpret. IMO, those would be the unforgivable sins and Hooper's film doesn't commit them.

    He did well in assembling the cast that he did. Hugh Jackman's performance and commitment to the role were impressive. I think I might even prefer Anne Hathaway's portrayal of Fantine to that of the stage actress at the time, not because Ms. Hathaway is necessarily more talented than her theatrical counterpart but because the camera angles and directorial decisions succeeded in punctuating the true misery of the character's state. The intimacy of a theater setting isn't possible in a multiplex cinema, of course, but Hooper used filming techniques to achieve that intimacy between screen characters and audience. The gritty closeups of the
    actors' faces helped to achieve it.

    The film did what a stage performance couldn't do in providing panoramic views and sweeping camera work. And it didn't usurp what the stage does best. I don't think it even tried, so why do some critics seem to think that complimenting a film and screen actors when there's a stage version about is somehow disrespectful or common? It's not. "Les Mis" the movie can and does enthrall audiences.

  • Alex | December 26, 2012 3:49 PMReply

    I had critics didn't like it, so approached the film, whose stage version I'd seen three times, with a little trepidation. Within ten minutes I was swept up and and enthralled through the entire film. Hooper adapted what had been staged before a theatrical audience where performers had to sing to the balcony seats and used film techniques to immerse into the place and time of the story, with closeups allowing us into the interior sung monologues of the characters. Movie theaters want to screen films as often as possible for maximum revenue and thus hate films with intermissions (when was the last time there was one?), thus Les Miz had to do without one, which would have made it easier to process the emotion of the story. This was the adaptation I've waited years for.

  • DaveyDlow | December 26, 2012 6:16 AMReply

    I agree with Mr. Maltin a lot but not with this review. I do wish Hooper had used a few less close ups. But I found the film moving and cried more than I have ever have watching the stage show. Maybe it's just that music.

  • grammar police | December 26, 2012 3:00 PM

    Really, Davey: "a few less" -- what does that even mean?

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  • Kim | December 25, 2012 7:12 PMReply

    Completely agree with you, Mr. Maltin. I had trouble connecting with a lot of the characters and the scenes and I think it was because of the overabundance of production design, camera movement and general directing. Nothing was allowed to speak for itself. After the screening, my friend also kept stating that an intermission would've benefitted the film. We were both overwhelmed with the heavy hand and number of events within a short period of time that a break would've been nice to help digest everything. I really wanted to like this film but was too disconnected to feel anything.

  • Kim | December 25, 2012 7:11 PMReply

    Completely agree with you, Mr. Maltin. I had trouble connecting with a lot of the characters and the scenes and I think it was because of the overabundance of production design, camera movement and general directing. Nothing was allowed to speak for itself. After the screening, my friend also kept stating that an intermission would've benefitted the film. We were both overwhelmed with the heavy hand and number of events within a short period of time that a break would've been nice to help digest everything. I really wanted to like this film but was too disconnected to feel anything.

  • RPM | December 25, 2012 6:31 PMReply

    The heavy use of hand-held camera drove me out of the theater just about half way thru the movie. Trying to keep my eyes up with the bouncy image ruined it for me.
    I went hoping to like it, and had recently seen the 3-part, almost five hour French version from 1934, which I thought was a marvelous piece of movie-making.

  • davef | December 25, 2012 6:15 PMReply

    Spot on review. 100%. For a musical that is almost 100% reliant on the songs, very few of those cast here could actually, you know, sing. Jackman doesn't have nearly the range and sounded like he was singing through is nose. Crowe, aside from being a tenor in a barritone's role was painful to listen to. Seyfried had a warble in her voice that sounded like a 1940's Disney character. Redmayne was fine and Barks was outstanding. But overall, meh.

  • cmike92 | December 27, 2012 4:58 AM

    jackman is a tenor who nails a high b. crowe is a bass.

  • Clarence | December 25, 2012 5:03 PMReply

    Completely disagree with you. I have never felt emotion from the stage show, and I cried three times in the movie.

  • Jeffrey | December 25, 2012 11:47 AMReply

    It struck me as bizarre that a musical version of Les Miserables would be committed to film, when this story has always been done well as a simple cinematic drama. Even if the best film version was in 1935, I have always preferred the non-musical portrayal on screen. As ambitious as this project was, I never believed in it and based on the qualified critical response, it appears I was correct. Still, this film will likely be talked about quite a lot along with other ostensible (albeit more plausible) Oscar contenders.

    Incidentally, I disagree with Leonard Maltin's suggestion that films in the present day would be well-served by intermissions. If endurance or fatigue might be a problem in watching a film, I usually solve that before the movie at the Starbucks down the street.

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  • Kristen | December 25, 2012 8:29 AMReply

    As an ardent Les Mis fan for my entire life, all I have to say to you is.. You're Wrong. This movie expounded on the limited visuals a stage production can provide. This is exactly the task of a major motion picture. This film has finally given true fans what we have been waiting for and begging for from Hollywood - a soul stirring cinema feat that can only be described as Magical. Describing it as any less is a diservice to the remarkable actors in this film and to Les Mis itself. So put simply, you sir are wrong.

  • Sam | December 25, 2012 11:43 AM

    I completely disagree with you. As a fan of the musical, I do think the filmmaker did an outstanding job with this movie. It is equally if not a little bit better than the play. Hathaway was perfect and if you don't get goosebumps in that one scene ( I Dreamed a Dream), then you may as well just have left the theatre. The rendition and presentation of One Day More was more than enough to prove how good the movie was. You sir, shouldn't be reviewing movies.

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