les_miserables_ver11_xlgJust to get this out of the way, I dislike musicals. This is a review written by someone who dislikes musicals because I think it is an inherently flawed method of storytelling. That is aside from musicals that address the fact that everyone suddenly starts singing, like The Producers, where they are making a musical, or Sweeney Todd where everyone is insane and it’s all in their heads.

So, with that said…

Les Misérables opens with a bravado and camera stunt so epic it calls to mind old school historical epics made before directors viewed everything through tiny monitors. Swooping dramatically downwards through the masts and rigging of a large Man-of-war, into its dock, before descending to the prisoners hauling it in and trying to right it. All the time the powerful throb of Work Song makes a fine, bombastic introduction to the film. Make the most of it, this is best it has to offer.

Set during the French Revolution director Tom Hooper has plenty of scope to play with and he makes the most of it for the first half of the lengthy running time. The cinematography is beautiful, making great use of locations which manages to bring a sense of reality to a musical. Though as the ship sequence is exemplary of, Les Misérables is heavily front loaded. The scenes of Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) making good his parole are the most visually interesting of the film, notably his cold journey across the mountain range and his salvation at the church.

Following this the film seems to lose its sense of place. The reality of the church, mountains and dockyard gives way to sets which seem increasingly artificial. The frailty of the sets reaches its nadir during the battle with the French military. What should be a powerful and violent scene of loss and defeat is robbed of any weight by the polystyrene-looking houses that surround the barricade. That one of the main characters, Marius Pontmercy (Eddie Redmayne) loses all his friends is completely invalidated by the pantomime  scenery. It’s as though the construction kicks you out of the world then brings a steel emotional shutter down in front of the screen, reminding you that this is just a movie, so don’t worry about what’s happening.

But then, this is a shutter that’s already been slammed down plenty before this. It’s a real shame as the three most publicized actors do an absolutely wonderful job of conveying the heightened emotion their characters feel. Hugh Jackman imbues Valjean with a great sense of defiance, determination and resolution that he carries through the film. For such a downtrodden, good egg Jackman still manages to make Valjean someone we can get behind.

Hathaway with her hair away.

Hathaway with her hair away.

Anne Hathaway continues to show just why she’s graduated so meteorically from the teen-stardom of The Princess Diaries (not to say that’s a bad film, it’s not, its better than Les Misérables). The sequence where she’s stripped of her belongings, status, dignity and most importantly, her hair, is sold convincingly. While its not as distressing as it would be in a straight drama, she does incredibly well within the constraints of a musical. Hathaway has always been great when acting with her face, and here she really plays to that strength.

Unfortunately both Anne Hathaway and Hugh Jackman are brilliant singers. As they experience tragedy and physical abuse, they turn to camera and suddenly unleash angelic and beautiful pitch-perfect voices. Under such duress their flawless performances, even if one tries to accept they are bizarrely singing, simply don’t ring true.  After all their good work, bringing us into their grief and emotion, again the steel emotional shutter slams down, kicking us out of the moment and reminding the audience this is all make-believe.

The only central actor who manages to avoid this is Russell Crowe as Javert, the standout performance of the film. Crowe isn’t a brilliant singer. As such he blusters his numbers unapologetically, delivering lyrics in a straight-forward manner, without nuance and direct, often standing on a ledge. His singing really matches his character and the concepts he embodies and as such its the most truthful and best turn in  Les Misérables.

Russell Crowe as Javert

Russell Crowe as Javert

Sacha Baron Cohen is also enjoyable to watch, providing some much needed comic relief playing Thénardier. His song Master Of The House, accompanied by Helena Bonham Carter playing herself again, also captures the truthfulness Russell Crowe possesses. However they’re victims of another major issue with Les Misérables; the story.

Yes, I am going to do this again.

Yes, I’m going to do this again.

The story matches the quality of the sets. Beginning well and with weight, it quickly descends into nonsense and makes some fatal errors. Why leave out large elements of plot which would clearly be more interesting than what’s shown? How did Valjean go from being a beggar to the mayor of a town? Why are the Thénardiers destitute street-crooks? Why are major characters and plot points introduced towards the end of the story? Why doesn’t Dead Anne Hathaway get her hair back when she’s a ghost? The lack of explanation for Valjean’s dramatically higher status is a hole in the wall of this story-dam that increasingly crumbles under the strength of inept plot decisions.

This all comes to a head during the ‘climactic’ battle between Marius, his friends and the French Military. Marius is simply introduced far too late and played with too little charm for us to sufficiently care about him and by extension his friends. It all boils down to a dully shot exchange of fire between characters we don’t care about on a cardboard set. Marius and his comrades should have been introduced much earlier in the plot for the confrontation to have the impact its supposed to.

Not bothered.

Not bothered.

Is  Les Misérables an unmitigated disaster? No. Russell Crowe is great, as are Anne Hathaway and Hugh Jackman when they’re not slamming down that emotional shutter. Costumes are sumptuous and its nice to see someone at least try to put a version of the French Revolution on screen again, but I’ll admit that’s damning with faint praise. None of this stops this being a tedious 158 minutes. Is it worth that much of your time? That’s also a no.

Fantine dreamed a dream. Les Misérables left me wishing I’d drank a drink.

By RJ Bayley.

Thought Goats In The Machine has been too hard on Les Misérables (The Lesbians)?
Did you like the film? Do you enjoy sleeping while sitting up to loud, overwrought music? Tell us about it in the comments below!
You can follow RJ Bayley on his twitter: @Chunder_Thunder
For direct updates on reviews like this follow Goats In The Machines twitter: @Goatsinmachine

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