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Les Misérables

December 28, 2012

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As its title suggests, which translates into “The Miserable’s”, Les Misérables is the gloomy story of a group of unfortunate people introduced to audiences during a turbulent time, then killed off as if they were characters in a campy soap opera. Beginning in 1815 France, we are introduced to Jean Valjean, a prisoner released on parole after a 19-year-sentence finding it difficult to make a living and seek shelter as an ex-criminal. While given refuge by a Bishop, Jean instinctively bites the hand that feeds stealing from the clergyman, only to be forgiven, blessed, and released with the goods by the priest.

Eight years later Jean has gotten his life together as the beloved Mayor of a small city and owner of a factory with an upstanding reputation. However, when he runs into Javert, a general who served over him while he was a prisoner, Jean realizes that Javert is still holding a bitter grudge against him and for the next nine years the two continuously cross paths with Javert determined to return Jean to prison.  Meanwhile Jean takes in an orphaned child, Cosette, protecting her from the cruel world they both have come to know while an impending rebellion starts to take place, further introducing audiences to a slew of colorful characters.

Les Misérables’ scope and magnitude of production is far beyond impressive. 19th century France seems to come alive in all its hideous glory. Buildings are beautifully extravagant but all the while haggard with chipped paint and rotting wood and cobblestone streets are run with hundreds of peasants with signs of Cholera and sickness. Costumes play a major part as the bright periwinkle blues of French general’s suits and bright clothing of upper class citizens contrasted against the drab faded grays and navy blues of others is a heart wrenching reminder of the stark differences in social classes.

Also each cast member marvelously pulls their weight in both singing and acting. Although Les Misérables is grossly melodramatic, the performances from the cast members are nothing short of fabulous. Anne Hathaway is heartbreaking as Fantine, a worker in Jean’s factory, hitting every note of song beautiful while sobbing and choking back tears during most of her scenes, while Hugh Jackman proves he possess actual talent outside of angry scowling in metal claws. Each actor produces the ample amount of waterworks and brooding depressed faces while still delivering their respective songs with tenacity and projection… except Russell Crowe. Don’t really get why he was chosen to sing.

At best Les Misérables’ direction is reminiscent of the early silent film, The Passion of Joan of Arc with its heavy use of tight close ups and hand held movements. At worst Les Misérables is reminiscent of an amateur with a camera. A major element of the film that has been beaten into anyone who has sat through the opening commercials in movie theaters the past few months, is that the cast sang live while filming Les Misérables. Before, musicals consisted of actors lip singing over previously recorded songs, usually shot from afar in medium or long shots.

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From a directorial stance, Les Misérables’ use of actors singing while being filmed sometimes makes for empowering scenes in which the emotion of a character is captured naturally with tense close ups that force viewers to feel empathy. But as the film continues, the direction becomes annoyingly inconsistent; canted angles are cartoonishly used and the extreme  close ups lose their punch. Also the film’s most climatic scene in which a battle takes place is awful to watch because of the poor direction. Shots are fired, but most the time it looks as though victims are dropping due to their own guns backfiring. There’s no target for a shot, there’s just scenes of shooting followed by random people falling including those who just shot giving the film the professionalism of a third grade school play as opposed to a multi-million dollar movie.

My biggest problem with Les Misérables is the script. As someone who has never seen or read Les Misérables before, the film is responsible for initially teaching me what I know of its story and thanks to the film, it’s hard to buy that Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables was once considered by Upton Sinclair  the best novel ever written. Javert‘s insatiable need to destroy Jean’s life is nonsensical. Fifteen years pass and numerous encounters between the two take place and I still just didn’t understand why this respected general is so gung-ho about capturing Jean. If Jean had killed Javert‘s sibling let alone murdered anyone, then I could comprehend why the God fearing authoritarian wouldn’t believe in Jean’s redemption, but you know what Jean did to land in prison? Spoiler alert: he stole a loaf of bread. He wasn’t even as bad as Aladdin, yet this General just can’t go on knowing that Jean is a free man.

Also Fantina’s story happens so quickly that I found no reason, other than Hathaway’s performance, to care about her fate. One minute she’s working in a factory and literally the next she’s considered a whore, thrown out on the streets, and resorting to selling her hair, teeth, and body. The political issues of France are barely fleshed out as well. If it wasn’t for Wikipedia I wouldn’t have any clue why the students of the film were rebelling and what it achieved.

I like musicals, honestly I do. I can appreciate a moment being explained through the power of song, but a movie in which there’s  no spoken word only sung parts… no. I just can’t do it. Everyone sings, all the time, about everything. It’s just too much. But if musicals tickle your fancy, then Les Misérables won’t disappoint, otherwise it may be difficult to get through it. Sure the performances are great, sure it’s based off a well loved book and play, but that doesn’t mean the film is executed well and it’s really hard to sit through two and half hours of singing and crying without wanting to cut yourself a bit by the end.

AVOID IT. I’ll stick to Grease and Singin’ In The Rain.

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. December 30, 2012 3:40 PM

    I hope you know the script of this movie is very-very far from Hugo’s book, “the best novel ever written” according to Sinclair . I didn’t really get your point : do you judge this literature masterpiece from this new Hollywood fantasy for kids ? I don’t know if you read books, but if you do read it and make your opinion from the real thing .

    • December 30, 2012 3:53 PM

      Thanks for the comment! You missed the point of my argument though, I’m judging it as a film. I was just stating that if this was written on par with the novel then I don’t understand the hype. I do read, but I prefer books that piqué my interest and currently at this point in my life Les Miserables doesn’t, but who knows what the future holds!

  2. December 30, 2012 4:22 PM

    Yes I got it . Don’t worry : the script, except characters’ names and some rough images, is as faithful as a cartoon version of Macbeth .

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