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Review: Bloated ‘Les Miserables’ Still Falls Short Despite Strong Performances, Anne Hathaway & Cinematic Grandeur

Reviews
by Rodrigo Perez
December 6, 2012 6:29 PM
41 Comments
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Hugh Jackman Anne Hathaway Les Miserable

This is why you can’t pay too much attention to the buzz and get all wrapped up in Twitter noise that all of sudden made everyone go, “Oscar frontrunner!” Early screenings of “Les Miserablesdid provoke audiences to burst into applause after certain song performances and yes, many were in tears by the end of the film. And that’s because Tom Hooper’s “Les Miserables” has two incredible sequences (both of which audiences thundered over in our early screening), but the rest of the movie? Well, maybe not so much.

Though there’s actually lots of positive things to say about the film. Its scope and ambition are to be admired, and Hooper’s certainly stepped up his game from the rather pedestrian, but effective “The King’s Speech.” It’s great to see the filmmaker challenging himself and “Les Miserables,” at nearly two hours and forty minutes, is a huge, epic undertaking. Anne Hathaway, as you’ve likely heard, is breathtakingly good in her small, but unforgettable role as Fantine. She essentially brings the house down with her stirring rendition of “I Dreamed A Dream.” Hugh Jackman is also strong, and similarly emotionally committed to the role. And then there’s that moving and spectacular finish, which will leave audiences floored.

Les Miserables

The rest of the film, however, is just a little bit overcooked. The initial grandeur -- which impresses as it’s a 180 from Hooper’s past work -- begins to curdle into something histrionic, bombastic and overly extravagant. Obviously based on the musical adaptation of Victor Hugo’s novel, “Les Miserables” spans about two or three decades of time (at least) and centers on Jean Valjean (Jackman), a thief turned pious man, who is trying to turn his life around in 19th-century France, but is relentlessly hounded by the heartless policeman Javert after he breaks parole. Russell Crowe is imposing and fittingly scary as Javert, but the singing doesn’t always take as impressively as the others.

Imprisoned for an exorbitant 20 years for stealing bread to feed his starving family, when Jean Valjean is finally released he is bitter and angry. In a desperate moment he tries to steal from the very priest who is trying to help him. When he is caught, the priest turns a blind eye and lies for him, and Jean Valjean, seeing the mercy and love they’ve shown him, transforms and lives his life for kindness from this day forward. Jean flees town, but years later makes himself into a wealthy man.

But fate intervenes when Fantine, a worker at his factory, dies (it’s complicated), and Jean Valjean agrees to care for her daughter Cosette (eventually played by Amanda Seyfried when she’s older). That fateful day changes everything, as the cruel and merciless Javert essentially tries to hunt him down for violating his parole years and years ago. From there the film tracks the Valjean/Javert conflict, as the man on the run becomes entangled with a group of young idealists (which includes Eddie Redmayne and Aaron Tveit) swept up in a French uprising.

Les Miserables

Featuring 50 songs (not one of them actually edited out of the original musical; even one new one is added), “Les Miserables” is unrelenting with its barrage of music and it would have been nice to see the acting sparks of Crowe vs. Jackman take flight (instead they sort of sing at each other from afar; a type of “I’m gonna get you”/“you should forgive me” over and over again). And it's not helped by the grueling runtime, in which every minute is felt, with almost no editing or shortening of the original story, which makes for a long slog.

Cinematically, the scale and size of “Les Miserables” is absorbing, and affecting; you can see why in the U.K. they’re going to put the film on IMAX screens. But the fish-angle lens approach that Hooper takes to almost every other shot begins to wear on the eyes much, like most of what strikes the viewer as initially appealing. Co-starring Sacha Baron Cohen, Helena Bonham Carter, Samantha Barks (who has her own subplot), Daniel Huttlestone and Isabelle Allen (as the young Cosette), Cohen and Carter play the comic relief, but they’re essentially out of a Tim Burton caricature, and their entire sections are painful and garishly predictable.

When it comes to the musical performances, the actresses -- Hathaway, Seyfried and Barks -- all have wonderful swooning voices, and fare much better than the men, which is a distracting issue, considering that the film is largely about the males in the movie. And while Hooper pushing himself is commendable -- he was over dogged for his safe direction of "The King's Speech" which suited the material -- "Les Miserables" isn't going to silence his critics.

Les Miserables

But, “Les Miserables” ends magnificently. The conclusion is epic, emotionally rousing and yes, does move audiences to tears and joy and applause. It’s a tremendously crafted sequence utilizing the best this musical has to offer, with stirring songs, passionate emotion and an almost panoramic cinematic sweep to it. And so while ‘Les Mis’ ends terrifically, it cannot make up for the largely uneven experience that comes before it. There is no doubt an abundance of passion and commitment in “Les Miserables” but when the musical isn’t connecting emotionally -- which is at least half the time -- it’s a lot of blustering sound and fury that could either use a dialogue break or an edit. [C]

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41 Comments

  • Mpzz | January 4, 2013 8:42 PMReply

    Having every line in the movie -not songs, lines- sung, in the most droning and tuneless way, makes this movie unwatchable.

  • Sarah | February 5, 2013 3:33 AM

    Thank you for "droning and tuneless." I have been trying to find the words to describe what made the singing of every line worse than it might have been (though I would probably not have liked any film with that characteristic.)

    There were a lot of things that I hated about this film, but that droning, tuneless singing of every line was excruciating!

    Now it you can just give me the words to describe the awfulness of the lines/lyrics themselves. They were lacking in poetry, which, if your gonna sing the words, they need to be poetic. But that's saying what they were not. I can't think of the best words to describe how bad they were.

  • Aaron M | December 28, 2012 8:22 PMReply

    The author's final statement "There is no doubt an abundance of passion and commitment in “Les Miserables” but when the musical isn’t connecting emotionally -- which is at least half the time -- it’s a lot of blustering sound and fury that could either use a dialogue break or an edit." sums it up perfectly!!! The whole movie is in song and the director's choice of a non-prerecorded soundtrack makes all the songs sound the same and the movie just goes on and on. Only positive is that Anne Hathaway is awesome but, still, her screen time is limited.

  • Tony | December 26, 2012 7:31 PMReply

    This movie critic is a major douchebag. This movie is not the type of movie I like, but if I did like these types I wouldnt listen to this gomerpile's review. This guy thinks hes some kind of Ebert and Roeper caliber critic.

  • Abinas Jagernauth | December 18, 2012 11:57 AMReply

    I was planning to see "Les Miserables" but after reading this review I'm having second thoughts.

  • Tanya | December 27, 2012 5:09 PM

    I went to see this movie opening night, and it was better than what this critic leads you to believe. Critics always have bad things to say about great movies, and this movie is fantastic. I highly recommend it. I have seen the actual musical, there is a comparison between the two, but this movie was the best musical movie I've seen.

  • Heath | December 10, 2012 2:34 AMReply

    Just wondering, if the 'middle-and-the-meat' of the film didn't come anywhere near Hathaway's "I dreamed a dream" vignette and the Finale, does that mean "Stars", "Bring him home", "One Day More", "A little fall of rain", "On my own", etc. just fell short!? I mean, some of the musical's most classic melodies are in those songs and others I haven't even listed...

  • Alex P | December 8, 2012 12:05 PMReply

    On the money. This movie is terrible.`

  • Max | December 9, 2012 9:39 PM

    Having already seen the film at the cast and crew screening here in London on Tuesday, it's certainly not 'terrible'. Whilst I doubt it will win best film at the Baftas and Oscars, it is a great film full of amazing performances, and it will at least win awards for acting, and be nominated for best film.

  • LA2000 | December 8, 2012 11:36 AMReply

    It is interesting to see how emotionally invested some people seem to be in the success of a film they have yet to see.

    I am reminded of how the Romney folk shrieked endlessly about biased and skewed polls that showed their candidate losing. It simply couldn't be...because how could that be!? It had to be bias! The polls were out to get them!

  • Bee | December 24, 2012 12:26 AM

    WAY off topic there honey...

  • Ryan | December 10, 2012 8:52 AM

    Best acting is all that matters. WHICH ANNE HEATHAWAY DESERVES.

  • Ken | December 7, 2012 7:24 PMReply

    This review made me feel..............wait for it.....................Miserable.

  • Jack | December 7, 2012 4:23 PMReply

    Here we go. It looks like the Dark Knight Rises all over again. First bad review. Everyone goes bananas. Some people are going to like and some aren't. I bet you can find someone who doesn't like the Godfather. It's their opinion.

  • Phil | December 7, 2012 2:40 PMReply

    The complaints here are just strange. You wish that Jackman and Crowe’s “acting sparks” can “take flight” but oops there’s singing getting in the way? In the first sentence of the Wiki page for Les Mis you’ll find that it says this is a “sung-through-musical”—as in it’s all singing! I understand that some people want a “fresh” perspective or whatever so they’ll go and see a film completely uninformed (I did so a few months back with Beasts of the Southern Wild; it made for an enjoyable experience), but when you’re reviewing a film that is the latest iteration of something that has been around 25 years (150+ years if include the book! Victor Hugo gave Valjean that “exorbitant” 20 year sentence, bro), do some research. Complaining about being barraged with music at Les Mis is equivocal to watching Toy Story and wishing things didn’t look so CGI and Pixar-y.

    This review feels like the critic has never seen a musical at all because musicals are all overwrought and garish--that's why people love 'em! I could see that this particular musical may attempt to take itself more seriously ("we're all singing live because emotions!") than the classic MGM sing-and-dance-athons of many decades ago, but that's because it was birthed in the eighties, and this musical has meant a lot to people in a lot of ways both large (the song "Empty Chairs at Empty Tables" was used in AIDS awareness activism!) and small (how many times do you think a preteen Anne Hathaway sang "Castle in the Cloud" and dreamed of playing Cosette before growing up and playing her slutty mom instead—probably a lot! I know I did! Sigh…).

    Look: I don’t expect much of this musical movie, but that’s because I know what to expect—singing (lots of it!) and some unnecessary drama (yo, Jalvert, calm the f— down, bro) and strange stoicism and a little bit of preachy spiritual and moral stuff (it’s there, I know, because I’ve seen the live musical), and I’m looking forward to seeing the additional things that the stage cannot display—including some seriously overwrought and garish pre-Revolution sets and dress and some close-up famous people facial expressions while singing these already overwrought and garish songs (again, this is originally from the eighties!), and I just wish this critic had some sort of understanding of what to expect as well because most of this review is wasted on problems that could have been solved if he had been, well, any type of informed.

  • Cate | December 7, 2012 1:53 PMReply

    I just want to point out that this is a sung-through musical, which in fact is a sub-genre of musical theatre: the closest thing to dialogue-as-we-think-of-it in the show are the recitatives, which lie somewhere between full-blown balladeering to the balconies and lines that are simply spoken. I haven't seen the film yet but various people associated with it have made mention of the fact that spoken dialogue was added and recitatives were revised or trimmed, in order to streamline things after further character development was brought in from the novel. So that one line re: "endless barrage of music" I feel is a bit unfair, as it relates more to the substance of the musical than something unique to the film -- removing any of the 49 songs is essentially the equivalent of gutting the substance from a scene in a script. And while a case can be made for judicious cuts (hey, people slice and dice Shaksepeare all the time...) and using another art form to elevate the original, I think it fair to say that if you take the sung-through nature out of Les Mis then it won't even be Les Mis anymore.

    Appreciate the measured review, though! I am a fan of the novel and the musical so emotional resonance would hardly be an issue, and it feels like enough goes right with the performances and the overall experience that I won't mind the things that go wrong with Hooper's approach.

  • Samuel ogbadu | December 7, 2012 9:09 AMReply

    No matter what anyone says about this movie, it is sure going to be epic. Whoever is attacking Anne Hathaway is just a hater. Let her be. She certainly gave the performance of her career and though I love Amy Adams and I think she is long overdue for an Oscar win, I just believe Anne has got this one in the bag. And if anyone is familiar with the musical, you will know that songs make a much better part of the movie than actual dialogue. So quit complaining about the music being too much.

  • [A] | December 7, 2012 8:05 AMReply

    I'm not familiar with the play or anything like that, but I feel like all the people praising this movie to death (on twitter) was actually doing it some harm.. not to mention calling it "Les Miz" which is rock-bottom level of cheap.

  • Ugh | December 6, 2012 11:36 PMReply

    I haven't been impressed with Tom Hooper's 'filmmaking genius' to date. Expected this.

  • LV | December 9, 2012 7:00 AM

    You also are clearly unfamiliar with any Les Miserables fan ever. Calling it 'Les Mis' is vernacular. Don't get your panties caught in a twist over something so insignificant. The fact is that people love the show and the book. They can call it what ever they want, because THEY own their own experience with said mediums, not you.

  • You Will Win An Oscar And Rob Amy Adams | December 6, 2012 9:48 PMReply

    So basically, cast Anne Hathaway in 10-20 minutes max of your movie and you WON'T want to punch her in the face? Basically as long as she's a supporting actress, she's tolerable. Take TDKR for instance. Yes, Rachel Getting Married and the first Princess Diaries is an exception but it seems like between Brokeback and this film- she's much better suited to be a supporting player than an actual lead actress. Never forget the shitacular crap she starred in- Love and Other Drugs, One Day, etc. Lead actress, you are not Annie.

  • Wow | December 15, 2012 8:18 AM

    Lose a role to her, did you? Why do your comments need to be so ugly?

  • Alan | December 7, 2012 12:14 AM

    Rob Adams, for what? Not 'The Master' surely? She exudes little to no personality in that film: you really think THAT performance deserves an Oscar? Really?

  • Sg | December 6, 2012 11:19 PM

    Anne Hathaway is quite talented, and she carried Rachel Getting Married (and got an Oscar nod for it). I don't understand why you're attacking her.

    Looking forward to the performances in Les Mis despite the direction.

  • Corvo | December 6, 2012 7:28 PMReply

    Bad review. It seems the author wanted so bad to blast the movie that he had to make up anything to succeed. A waste of effort. Reading between the lines we understand that he's writing about a GREAT movie. Even if he doesn't want to admit it.

  • Carter | December 9, 2012 2:32 PM

    Corvo. Reading between the lines nothing. Anne Hathaway was the only really outstanding thing about this film, aside from sets and makeup. It was obvious from the promos. People give live performances all the time and are able to make performances both emotional & interesting, it didn't happen here and tptb knew it. Why else would they delay critics from publishing reviews?

  • Alan | December 7, 2012 7:11 PM

    Actually, Edgar, I have seen the film, but congrats on the lame insult, nonetheless. I had many of the same concerns as Rodrigo. I am criticizing The Playlist for wanting to not like the film, which is fair considering that Gabe spends half his time on Hollywood Elsewhere bitching about Tom Hooper (and the other half alluding to Michael Fassbender's personal life) and these philistines have no concept of European history (the story is not set during THE French Revolution, as the previous article suggested). I apologise, Edgar: clearly it is asking too much for a film critic to know the basics about history.

  • Edgar | December 7, 2012 8:15 AM

    Gotta love people who defend movies to death that they haven't seen (corvo, alan), but that's why commenters are on the outside and do their best to try and tip the scales (lord knows why other than the fact that they're huge fanboys I guess).

  • Travis | December 7, 2012 6:35 AM

    I fail to see how critics are "blasting it" LOL. After only a few reviews have come out (I don't think it is at 20 yet), it is still maintaining a positive ranking. Even Rodrigo didn't "blast it." He wrote a review that-at least how I interpreted it-stated it was an ok film that moved slowly and seemed too long with the exception of only a couple really excellent scenes. Which-despite my hopes to the contrary-may very well be true. But it is certainly not "blasting it."

  • Alan | December 7, 2012 12:12 AM

    It's bold that you would cite that pro/con piece, Rodrigo, considering that it contained some key errors (you guys must not have passed history if you thought the story was set during The French Revolution).

  • Rodrigo | December 7, 2012 12:01 AM

    Ridiculous Corvo. We ran a pro and con piece a few weeks ago and I wrote the pro section. I was greatly looking forward to this. But nice try.

  • Alan | December 6, 2012 10:39 PM

    To the credit of The Playlist, they didn't publish a review from Gabe 'Fuck-That-TV-Director-Hooper' Toro, even though I suspect that his unrelenting bitching might be an influence in the office. I have a problem with the assertion that "Cohen and Carter play the comic relief, but they’re essentially out of a Tim Burton caricature". Firstly, he references Burton because - and only because - they also appeared in a Burton film together. Secondly, they are actually fine and fit the tone needed for those characters, giving the often morose material the baroque humour that is necessary. However, it doesn't matter who plays those characters, because - at a certain point - a little goes a long way.

  • lol | December 6, 2012 9:07 PM

    Have you read any other reviews? Because they're all pretty much blasting it jsyk. Movie is a disaster sry2say.

  • Huffy | December 6, 2012 7:50 PM

    Yeah, and that restraining order means shes totally playing hard to get. With a delusional mindset like that of course your going to see the movie as a masterpiece regardless of how it actually turns out.

  • MongooseCmr | December 6, 2012 7:41 PM

    So you pretty much disregard what he said to satisfy your expectations. There's a word for that, I believe its called denial

  • DG | December 6, 2012 7:17 PMReply

    Not too surprising. If I see this at all it'll definitely be for Anne otherwise nothing I've seen or heard feels too exciting

  • Rico Zamora | December 6, 2012 7:13 PMReply

    This reviewer obviously knows nothing about the source material on which this film is based. Therefore, his "review" provides no context. And, if he think he does provide context, it is brusquely brushed aside by the evident lack of knowledge about what he's reviewing. Mr. Perez proclaims that this film is "obviously based on the musical adaptation of [the] novel...," and then complains about the film's "unrelenting...barrage of music...." What is to be expected from a "musical" adaptation, a book-on-tape narration of the plot? The mere fact that he refers to the backdrop of this story as being during the "French Revolution" immediately invalidates any opinions he states either before or after arriving at that stunted conclusion.

  • Blart | December 7, 2012 12:02 AM

    When the reviewer doesn't know the source material... the greatest non-argument ever. As Renato said, the piece of work should work on its own independent of any adaptations.

  • Renato | December 6, 2012 8:38 PM

    A lot of people going to see this film will have no context also. A film shouldn't have instructions on how to like and emotionally invest on them. They should just work well for themselves.

  • James | December 6, 2012 6:56 PMReply

    The characters are not "swept up in the French revolution". Aargh. Why does everyone always think this. The story is set decades after the Revolution, climaxing with an otherwise-forgotten uprising in 1832.

  • Alan | December 9, 2012 12:41 AM

    Most contemporary film critics know nothing about a lot of subjects, including history.

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