Slavery, revolution, redemption, unrequited love, true love, social inequality, crime and punishment, religion, prostitution, duty, loyalty, honour – these are just some of the themes explored in the sprawling epic that is Les Misérables.
As someone that has never seen the stage show or indeed read the original novel I had little idea what to expect, but I couldn’t help being impressed at the sheer scale of this undertaking. Clocking in at 157 minutes long and without the benefit of an intermission the stage show enjoys, I was worried it may be hard going. Luckily this was far from the case.
Les Misérables takes place in 19th Century France, spanning several decades and intertwining several stories. Most of these stories centre around Jean Valjean, a man coming to the end of a 20 year sentence of hard labour. Released but forever marked as a criminal, Valjean starts an arduous journey to become a better man. That barely begins to describe all that this odyssey has to offer, but it’s hard to go into more detail without giving any surprises away and any attempt to explain such a complex plot might give you the mistaken idea the film will be hard to understand. Quite the opposite, perhaps this cinematic adaptations biggest achievement is how easy it is to follow what is going on.
One of the biggest factors in achieving this is Les Misérables characters – each one has something vital to contribute to the story and each has a distinct personality; I guarantee you won’t find yourself asking “wait, which one is he again?” at any point. The best performance comes from Anne Hathaway as Fantine. As well as having a fantastic voice, she gives a master class in conveying subtle emotion as she sings. Hugh Jackman is also very likeable in the role of Jean Valjean, which is good since his character takes up so much screen time. Russell Crowe’s singing voice is by far the weakest, but, like Alan Rickman as Judge Turpin in Sweeney Todd, it feels almost as if this was done deliberately to make him less likeable as character – he is playing the villain, Javert, after all. Besides, despite his voice Russell Crowe did an okay job.
If I had to fault the plot at all, it would be the love story between Marius and Cossette. I know that the idea of love at first sight is far from new, but it contrasts quite sharply with the rest of the characters who seem to have such obvious motivations. This very shallow love story right in the middle of it all seemed quite out of place. That isn’t to say this isn’t an emotional movie, nothing could actually be farther from the truth in fact. With such a wide range of themes included, it’s hard to imagine a person watching this movie without relating to at least some of it.
To sum up
Before anything else Les Misérables is a musical and if you have never liked one before, this won’t be the one that changes your mind. It is an extremely good musical, but it doesn’t do anything revolutionary here in terms of cinematic technique, and whilst there are a few comic moments, the story is quite serious overall, which prevents it from transcending the genre. The fact that all the songs were recorded live on set without any after effects or dubbing, and the way the movie seems content to stop and listen each time a character starts to sing shows that this is a movie which celebrates and champions musical theatre, rather than attempting to fully utilize the possibilities of cinema.