Smile Politely

A sad song sung well

Les Misérables is, among other things, the story of Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) and his road to redemption in nineteenth-century France. The film opens with Valjean a prisoner, because nineteen years ago he stole bread to try and save the life of his sister’s son. In prison, he is known as Prisoner 24601 to the menancing Inspector Javert (Russell Crowe). Eventually, Valjean is released from bondage and decides to reinvent himself as a businessman, establishing a factory that employs indigent women. One of these women, Fantine, is thrown out on the street for concealing an illegitimate child. She turns to prostitution to support her daughter, and eventually dies of consumption, leaving the little girl behind. Valjean, learning of Fantine’s destitution, promises to find and support the child, all the while pursued by the dogged Javert, who believes Valjean is “once a criminal, always a criminal.”

Les Mis — as it is called by many theatre fans worldwide — is one of the most well–known musicals of all time, adapted from an engrossing doorstop of a novel by Victor Hugo. The fact that director Tom Hooper (a 2011 Academy Award–winner for The King’s Speech) attempted to bring such real-life honesty to such a valued piece of writing is nothing short of commendable. Hooper’s set design team has crafted a remarkably genuine, lived-in reality for these characters to navigate: incredibly dingy, distressed sets that only enforce the bleakness of the film’s tone. Every character looks like he or she hasn’t had a bath in weeks and doesn’t know what a dentist is. Seeing all of this only drew me further into the world of Les Mis.

The cast is almost universally exceptional, particularly Hugh Jackman and Anne Hathaway, who are magic as Valjean and Fantine, respectively. Hathaway’s Fantine is on screen for no more than a cumulative twenty minutes, but in those minutes she managed to both move me emotionally and break my heart. Among the supporting cast, Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter do a decent job of providing some much needed levity to such a depressing film with their rendition of “Master of the House.” Also noteworthy — and particularly impressive — are the child actors, who really convey a sense of all that these children were forced to deal with in trying to survive in France.

Les Mis is unique — even among musicals — in that it is “sung-through,” meaning that almost all of the dialogue included in the film is delivered in song. While this is certainly impressive, this is also the film’s biggest problem. Even though I felt emotionally connected to all that was occurring, having everything constantly sung at me grew stale rather quickly. With the quantity and quality of singing on display in the film, the worst performance was given by Russell Crowe as the dogged Javert. While Javert’s passion for capturing his former prisoner Valjean was abundantly clear, Crowe’s garage rock voice was not at all suited to the operatic style other performers were bringing to the table.

I couldn’t help noticing that Amanda Seyfried, as the adult version of Fantine’s orphaned daughter Cossette, has a voice very similar to the Disney princess Snow White. There were a few moments when I found her vocals a bit too high-pitched, but she still managed to give an engaging performance as the love interest to Eddie Redmayne’s young revolutionary Marius. 

Overall, Les Mis is a very honest adaptation that should move fans of musicals and, at the very least, intrigue general audiences. Should you choose to see it, it shouldn’t be hard to find.

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