Les Miserables: Pros and Cons

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Les Miserables (2012), Academy Nominee for Best Picture

Everything was working against this film for me; the genre, the topic, the book and most notably Les Miserables (2012) director, Tom Hooper, the man who created the King’s Speech (2010), man who took the Academy Award for Best Direction from David Fincher (my heart still bleeds because those two films cannot ever be compared), man who thanked his mother upon receiving the award in the most ridiculous speech I have ever witnessed…BUT… the strangest thing happened. I didn’t hate the film.

I didn’t love it either. But I didn’t hate it and for me, coming to this realization is a groundbreaking experience. Anyways, I read this review and man! this must be said, if you do not appreciate the book or you are not familiar with the story of Les Miserables then don’t write a review that is bantering the story and the ‘ridiculousness of serving 19 years in prison for the loaf of bread’. It gives an impression that you are not only ignorant but also that you are full of it. So once we agree or disagree about whether we like or dislike the story of Les Miserables we can proceed and talk about the film, which should be the focal point of any film review. I guess. Me personally, I do not like the book, however, I knew what I am getting myself into so for the sake of the film I decided to condemn myself and endure. And overall, I liked it more than I disliked it. So, let’s start…with the plot.

“Les Misérables” arises from the stage musical, which itself was adapted from Victor Hugo’s enormous novel. Valjean (Hugh Jackman) serves nineteen years in prison for stealing a loaf of bread for his sister and her starving children. People argued about the severity of the punishment but this ‘loaf of bread’ must be seen as a symbol that just shows us the state France was in at the times. Anyways, upon leaving or escaping Valjean is turned away by innkeepers because of his yellow pass that marks him as a former convict. Starved and broken he wanders into a convent where Digne’s Bishop Myriel (Colm Wilkinson) gives him the shelter. That same night, Valjean runs off with Myriel’s silverware but is capture later on by Digne’s police. When the police bring Valjean back, Myriel pretends that he has given the silverware to Valjean and presses him to take two silver candlesticks as well, as if he had forgotten to take them. The police are fooled by Myriel’s charade. And after they leave, Myriel continues the pretense and tells Valjean that his life has been spared for God, that he should use the silver candlesticks to make an honest man of himself and live for the Lord. Time laps.

Eight years later, Valjean has become a factory owner and mayor of Montreuil-sur Mer. We meet Fantine (Anne Hathaway), one of his workers, who is discovered sending money to her illegitimate daughter, Cosette (Isabelle Allen) who lives with the comic relief couple Thénardiers (Helen Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen) and their daughter Eponine (Natalya Angel Wallace). Upon this discovery the foreman dismisses Fantine, who in a desperate attempt to support her daughter, sells her hair and teeth consequently becoming a prostitute only to be arrested by Javert (Russell Crowe) after attacking an abusive man, but is saved by Valjean. Later on, Javert, who suspects Valjean’s true identity, is testing him by revealing that a man believed to be Valjean has been arrested. Unable to accept that an innocent man is condemned, Valjean reveals his true identity to the court before departing for the hospital. There he promises a dying Fantine that he will look after her daughter. After escaping from Javert again, Valjean finds Cosette and pays the Thénardiers to allow him to take her, and promises to be like a father to her. Time laps.

Nine years later, we meet the Parisian students Marius Pontmercy (Eddie Redmayne), Enjorlas (A-a-ron Tveit) and a little boy Gavroche (Daniel Huttlestone) who discuss the revolution. A bit later we see Marius catching a glimpse of Cosette (Amanda Seyfried), now a young woman, who then falls deeply in love with her. Eponine (Samantha Barks), also a young woman now and a friend of Marius, leads him to Cosette, where the two confess their love for one another. Valjean (still hiding from Javert) is discovered by Thénardiers who want to trade him for money by handing him over to Javert. With their lives in jeopardy Valjean flees the city with Cossette, despite her love for Marius.  Back in the city students are building the barricades urging other Parisians to join the revolution. Javert joins the revolution but only as a spy. Valjean realizes that Marius will die fighting, leaving Cosset desperate and heart broken, so he goes back to the city and joins the revolution as well. Upon coming to the barricades he discovers Javert captured by the students. After saving Enjolras life, he is allowed to execute Javert. However, when the two are left alone, he shows him mercy and releases him instead. With the Parisians failing to join the revolution, as the students expected, they decide to fight to the death, a decision equal to a suicide. Everyone is killed but Marius, who is saved when Valjean drags his unconscious body into the sewers. However, he is confronted at the exit by Javert, again. Javert threatens to shoot Valjean if he refuses to surrender, but Valjean ignores this empty threat and he walks of, a free man. Unable to reconcile the conflict between his civil and moral duties, two things which he always considered the same, Javert commits suicide by plunging himself into the Seine.

Later, as Marius mourns the loss of his friends Cosette comforts him. Revealing his past to Marius, Valjean tells him he must leave because his presence endangers Cosette, and makes Marius promise never to tell her. Marius and Cosette marry; the Thénardiers crash the reception and testify that they saw Valjean carrying a murdered corpse through the sewers. Thénardier unwittingly shows Marius the ring that he stole from him as “proof.” Recognizing the ring, Marius realizes that it was Valjean who saved his life. As Valjean sits dying in a local convent, he perceives the spirit of Fantine appearing to take him to Heaven. Cosette and Marius rush in to say their farewell. Valjean hands Cosette his confession of his past life, and joins the spirits of Fantine, the Bishop, Enjolras, Éponine, Gavroche, and the other rebels at the barricade, singing. This is the plot of Les Miserables. I will not discuss the plot; rather I will give my pros and cons for Hooper’s film interpretation.

Les Miserables Review through pros and cons

PROS

– All the singing is recorded live, on the set. This is the first time someone has taken the risk of doing that. The result: definitely not a first class singing. Did it bother me? NOT AT ALL

Opening scene was just astonishing. Furthermore, it features Look down, which is perhaps my favorite song of the entire movie. The choreographic movement of the prisoners, covered in mud and water pulling the ropes in synchronized movement, is among the most beautiful images I have seen on musical.

– The grand-set pieces – almost all of these scenes looked good. Most notably (apart from Look Down), the-embarking-of-the-revolution scene featuring my second favorite song Do you hear the people singing? There was something about this scene that gave me chills. Perhaps it was the sense of belonging or the understanding of what it means to live in a country where those in power will take everything they can get their hands on leaving their people, their youth to rot without any shame. I felt like putting the tricolor on and march out into the streets of Banja Luka singing: Vive la France! Vive la Republique des Serbes! Vive la Révolution! Vive la whatever!

– Building of the furniture barricade. There’s nothing special about this scene but the visuals of it.

– Loved, just loved Crowe and Jackman’s stand of with the swards and songs! It was equally funny and brilliant.

Crowe as Javert. Most people hated Crowe in the role of Javert but I found him an interesting choice. In the words of Peter Bradshaw Crowe is a “big grumpy old bear”. And sure, the man can’t sing but he is not a singer, which only enhances the genuineness of his sang words. Furthermore, I felt like his voice was perfect for the role. It is raw and untrained so it perfectly reflects the fact that is a military man, and not a man of culture and intelligence. But then again it retains this lightness and quietness so symptomatic of a conflicted and tormented man, which Javert ultimately is.

Hugh Jackman is the star of the film. Doctor Cox you can eat your heart out!

CONS

– The length. There is no reason for this film to be 157 minutes long. No reason at all. And this becomes the biggest flaw that prevented Les Miserables from being great. Too bad.

– Perpetual repetition, as a direct repercussion of the excessive length, is yet another flaw. Unprovoked, Hooper relentlessly kept repeating certain scenes and musical themes, that at times, almost drove me mad.

– The absence of dancing or choreographed movement. Just like Anna Karenina (2012), which was cluttered with unnecessary choreographic movement, symptomatic of a musical (which Anna was not), Les Miserables suffers from the lack of it. Singing every single word, literally, unattended with the proper choreographed movement of the body, felt a bit forced at best and mannered at worst. This is why Look Down is singled out as my favorite and the most powerful scene. Lovely ladies was also satisfying. Both of these scenes felt like a musical because they were conceived (and followed through) as a musical.

– Offering the emotion about the emotion. Did not like this. At all.

– For those who have not read the book or watched the staging, or to sum it up, for those who are not familiar with the story, it is a bit hard to understand or follow attentively. Considering how everything is explained through singing (unlike in other film musicals) it is very easy to miss out on the crucial words, themes and so forth. Also the climax of the barricades and the battle (after Do You Hear the People Sing? sequence) was never reached. Or at least I never felt it.

– The curious case of Fantine’s front teeth. Although her much praised performance gave me chills it also left me with the (awkward) taste of too much… of just about everything. Not cool. Furthermore, in her rendition of, now famous, I Dream a Dream, shot in extreme close-up, her character that supposedly lost her teeth to a street dentist, parades around with dazzling white front teeth?! This leads us to conclude only thing possible – she must’ve sold only her back teeth. How convenient for Hathaway who must’ve known she is about to put up a performance of her life that will doubtlessly earn her an Oscar this year.

In conclusion, I’ve experienced something. I am not sure as to what though… But I remain optimistic for it will come to me. To repeat myself, in the spirit of Tom Hooper’s unduly iterance, I liked it more than I disliked it and therefor I also got more than I bargained for. Where does this film stand when compared to other Academy Award Nominees this year? Well, in top five, definitely. To my mind, it is better than Silver Linings Playbook, Zero Dark Thirty, Lincoln and Life of Pi (not sure about Django though). It is braver, more consistent and more interesting. Do I want to see it again? No. But will I watch particular scenes for few more times? Absolutely.

text written by: Monika Ponjavic

3.5/5

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