Going into this film, I had not read the novel by Victor Hugo nor seen the musical by Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg. I had heard some songs from the musical but without the narrative framework, I didn't really connect. Still, I went in with curiosity and hope. The first epic scene with prisoners pulling huge ropes to bring a damaged ship into a dock which seemed to be a crucible of human souls overseen by a single figure standing before a slate grey sky, Javert (Russell Crowe), a high guard of the prison. Among the prisoners his foil, Valjean, a nearly unrecognisable Hugh Jackman toils on the final day of his sentence. This scene establishes the conflict between the two men while simultaneously laying down a strong beat and flavour for the world in which the story is set. Unfortunately, the grim cadence peters out somewhat for the final half but more about that later.
The world of the film is marvellous with muted palettes and the unflinching look at les miserables gives the film a dark quality that works well with the subject matter even during some of the humorous scenes. There is shit in the streets, vomit on the lapel of a drunk, legs and freshly harvested cat tail being ground for meat, and dirt goes beyond just a few smears of black grease paint. This grit does so much to buttress what already exists in the musical pushing it to another level during the high points of the film and indeed matching some of the lyrics darkness.
As for the performances, they are overall extraordinary. As the film progresses, the incredible performances pile on one after another: Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, Anne Hathaway, Sacha Baron Cohen, Helena Bonham Carter... I started to think this parade of extraordinary, above par performances can't last forever and sadly it doesn't. It comes close but just misses the mark. Regretfully, there is a fly in the soup, a weak link in the chain, a Jar Jar in the mix... Eddie Redmayne who plays Marius seems like a CGI character. It is hard to believe he's there. While the others are acting first and singing second, he seems to be trying to hit the right notes without regard for the meaning and feeling behind the lyrics. Anne Hathaway doesn't sing I dream a dream as a technical singer and indeed her tears get in the way and a wobbly voice makes her voice waver but that song came to life for me like it never has before. (Sorry, Susan Boyle.) I had seen Eddie Redmayne last year in the BBC's production of Birdsong where, despite the lack of singing, he demonstrated another painfully wooden performance (though Joseph Mawle was fantastic).
Marius doesn't appear until the second half of the film which didn't work quite as well as the first. It isn't entirely down to him (though he is exceedingly distracting). At one point, I gave up getting angry and started laughing at some of the more inappropriate performances. To be fair though, I think his performance would have worked well on stage. Unfortunately, this wasn't a stage and everyone else seemed to be in on the secret that this is a film rather than a West End musical. I'll leave Eddie alone for now and hopefully if you've read this, it may prepare you and maybe even put you in the right mindset to enjoy the second half that much more.
The momentum and strength of the first hour or so of this film, I will never forget. The pacing is relentless like the beat established in the opening. It's like watching some insidious machine with people being pulled through its gears while fate turns the crank. It's visceral, dirty, dark, human and full of strong pacing and characterisation. From the second act, however it loses its way somewhat with pacing issues and Redmayne's distracting performance. Overall though, I think it is a must see film and the second half features a couple of knock out performances from Samantha Barks and young Daniel Huttlestone as well as a few songs that will linger with me for a long time but I can't help wondering what it would have been like if the momentum carried through to the end or if Benedict Cumberbatch had been cast as Marius.
Les Miserables Film (Wiki)
Les Miserables (IMDB)
Les Miserables Film (Official Site)
Les Miserables Musical (Official Site)