Title: Les Misérables
Director: Tom Hooper. Screenwriters: Claude-Michel Schönberg, Alain Boublil
Composer: Claude-Michel Schönberg. English lyrics by Herbert Kretzmer
Cast: Hugh Jackman, Anne Hathaway, Russell Crowe, Amanda Seyfried, Helena Bonham Carter, Sacha Baron Cohen
Screened at: Alice Tully Hall, NYC, 11/23/12. Opens: December 25, 2012
Victor Hugo’s masterpiece, “Les Misérables,” was justifiably a big seller in France when it came out in 1862, the French version running to 2,400 pages while the English translation was a mere 1,900. “Les Misérables” is an expansive, epic work dealing with the years 1815 through the June 1832 anti-monarchial revolution, a struggle that was put down by the king’s red-coated army. The Broadway play ran for ages despite the generally negative reviews the musical received in London, some critics complaining that a classic work of literature was turned into a musical while those who turned thumbs-down on the novel itself were revolted by the depictions of immorality and the realistic description of the lives of the poverty-stricken “miserables.” Broadway patrons with limited experience in theater seats may have called “Les Miz” awesome, but those with a long history of theater attendance would probably find it wanting when compared with the greats of an earlier time including “My Fair Lady,” “South Pacific,” “Oklahoma” and the like.
“Les Miz” has a few rousing songs, though nothing (in my opinion) that would stick to the brain when you wake up the next day. The current musical version, which features a cast designed to elicit a large box office, might be more accurately called “Le Miss,” if “Miss” were a French word rather than Mademoiselle. Despite a terrific job in the make-up and costume departments (consider the humorous decoration on the face of Helena Bonham Carter in the role of Madame Thénadier) and the accentuation of the long, black beard sported by Hugh Jackman in the opening scene, which shows the “Wolverine” after having lost thirty pounds and yet able to demonstrate his massive strength on a small number of daily calories.
Working against the screen version directed with fine coordination by Tom Hooper—whose other depiction of monarchy, “The King’s Speech” was a smaller and far better piece of cinema—are five major faults. One is that the show’s lead, Hugh Jackman as the put-upon Jean Valjean, is not much of a singer, being unable to evoke audience passion in his solos which include “What Have I Done?”, or in “Who Am I?” Another is the lack of chemistry between Marius (Eddie Redmayne) and the woman he is to marry, Cosette (Amanda Seyfried, who really can sing). Nor is there a credible feeling of simpatico by Hugh Jackman and Anne Hathaway in the role of Fantine—forced into prostitution after being fired from her job. A third is the claustrophobic nature of the battle between the revolutionaries, who use the furniture of the folks on the block as a barricade, and the red-coated French army whose rifles are fixed with bayonets for the hand-to-hand fighting that has since gone out of fashion. In fact, the actions appear to have been fought in a studio rather than in one of the many locations in England used by Danny Cohen behind the lenses.
Though box office might have been negatively affected, director Hooper and legendary producer Cameron Mackintosh could have hired any of a number of Broadway singers unknown outside the theater community with voices that would evoke the needed magic. Examples include Alexander Gemignani as Jean Valjean, Norm Lewis as Javert, Daphne Rubin-Vega as Fantine and Celia Keenan-Bolger as Éponine. Amanda Seyfried is perfect, however, in the role of Cosette. Fourth: though the musical has slapstick comic relief, the lyrics are totally lacking in wit—a fault of the screenplay even in its Broadway incarnation. Finally, at 158 minutes, the musical could have been cut.
SPOILER: Skip the rest if you do not know the story and wants to be surprised by the plot.
The novel has far more characters and considerable philosophizing about the nature of justice and the French architecture of the time, some of which we can absorb by the nature of the film. For contrary views of justice, consider the principal action, which is the obsessive struggle by police captain Javert to capture Jean Valjean and to send him to jail for the rest of his life. The opening scene finds Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackson) in a chain gang lifting a massive piece of wood to the amazement of the Javert. He is imprisoned for five years for stealing a loaf of bread to save the life of his sister’s son, then an additional fourteen years for trying to escape. On parole, he is given his first decent meal by a bishop (Colm Wilkinson) , steals his silver the next morning, is caught, but released when the bishop astonishing tells the police that he gave the silver as a gift.
Valjean becomes Monsieur Madeleine, a wealthy factory owner (the movie skips the business angle) and mayor of Montreuil-sur-Mer. He comforts Fantine (Anne Hathaway), who struggles to support her daughter Cosette , who has been left with two crooked innkeepers, the Thénadiers (Sasha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter). Valjean buys Cosette (Isabelle Allen—who is exhibited on the principal marketing posters) from the innkeepers and brings her up as though he were her dad. During a street battle, Cosette (Amanda Seyfried) and a young leader, Marius (Eddie Redmayne) fall in love after Marius has dismissed the flirtations of street urchin Éponine (Samantha Barks), who had been the Thénadiers’ spoiled child. Though the revolution fails, Jean Valjean can die in peace, having seen his adoptive daughter married off and having heard of the suicide of Javert.
Rated PG-13. 158 minutes © 2012 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online
Story – B-
Acting – C
Technical – C
Overall – C+