This is one of the most frustratingly bad movies I’ve seen in awhile. It’s one thing to be downright terrible. To stink and to own up to stinking is somewhat admirable. However, Les Miserables parades around like it’s an important work of art. Had it bothered to get out of its own way, who knows? There’s a brilliant musical buried deep under all the bad decisions, garish camerawork, and other unexplainable catastrophes. I feel like I could enjoy a stage version of the material but I could never stomach a second pass at this film.
The problems begin immediately as the film starts. We are introduced to Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman), a petty thief, and his tormentor Javert (Russell Crowe). The scene is set with a sweeping camera whooshing over unimpressive CG backgrounds. Jackman is in chains singing about his plight. Then, Jackman and Crowe exchange lyrics full of exposition. This standoff is meant to be dynamic and intense but it falls flat, and this becomes a recurring ailment. Scene after scene and song after song are presented mostly in close-up in an attempt to heighten the reality and emotion of the moment. What it actually accomplishes is suffocation through repetition. Everything dialed up is actually not a good thing. You can’t appreciate the highs without any lows.
Later, the movie jumps ahead in time, haphazardly introduces new and important characters, and then jumps ahead in time again only to haphazardly introduce a few more new and important characters. With such little care toward character development, it’s no wonder I had so little sympathy when they starting dropping like flies. It becomes difficult to see the point of the whole enterprise other than showing off the catchy songs. And there are some really good songs. I didn’t care for the dialogue-songs, but when it was an honest to God song, it was typically well done. Even the acting is good across the board. Anne Hathaway is clearly the standout and she has the only big number that benefits from the staging. She somehow rises above the mess and quivers to glory. And that’s with her character inexplicably going from normal to prostitute to death by prostitute in record-setting time.
I wasn’t familiar with the stage version, but it feels like nothing was adapted. The movie goes from a serious song with a character dying straight into comedic relief then right back to super-seriousness without taking a breath. The rest of the film is filled with these kinds of wild tone shifts that I imagine worked better on stage with set changes and curtains. In other instances, songs that I liked, that could possibly work in terms of spectacle on stage, failed on screen because they were unessential to story. I don’t need a song explaining how sad you are. Not only can I see you are sad, but everyone just died, so one can assume.
The movie could certainly have used a trim as it is way overlong. Admittedly this wasn’t ever going to be for me, but that doesn’t make it okay for other people either. I can’t fathom people enjoying having a director yell at them, “LOOK! LOOK AT THEM SING! THEY’RE REALLY SINGING!” for almost 3 hours. Even if the songs are good, and even if the actors are singing them well. Then again, people seemed to like The King’s Speech, so what do I know?