Film Review: ‘Les Misérables’


Winner of three glittering Oscars, British director Tom Hooper’s all-singing, all-dancing big screen adaptation of Victor Hugo’s classic novel (as well as the subsequent stage musical) Les Misérables has certainly managed to capture the imagination of many. After conquering all and sundry at with breakthrough hit The King’s Speech (2010), Hooper had set the bar intimidatingly high for his eagerly awaited follow-up. It was almost excruciatingly disappointing then, to see such a competent filmmaker undone more by his own bemusing misdirection and false steps, than by any preconceived, lofty ambition.

Set against the backdrop of 19th century France, Hooper’s Les Misérables tells an interconnected, sprawling tale of imprisoned souls, demonised poor and kindred spirits, all fighting for survival amidst a country on the verge of civil unrest. Australian man mountain Hugh Jackman plays ex-convict Jean Valjean (aka prisoner 24601), hunted across the land by lawman Javert (Russell Crowe) after he breaks free of his bonds. When Valjean agrees to care for factory worker Fantine’s (an on-form Anne Hathaway) young daughter Cosette (as a child Isabelle Allen, as a young woman Amanda Seyfried), a series of events are set in motion that will alter the fabric of our ensemble’s existence.

It’s worth noting that none of Les Misérables numerous faults can fairy be attributed purely to its musical format. The genre itself – one of cinema’s oldest and best-loved – has produced some of film’s most memorable moments, from Fred Astaire and Ginger Rodgers to Gene Kelly and Judy Garland. Thus, as one of the most popular stage musicals of all time, it made perfect sense for Hooper to imbue his period reconstruction of Hugo’s source text with the same pomp and vigour as the blockbusting, sung-through ‘Les Miz’. What does stick in the throat, however, is the scant vocal talent – Hathaway and one/two others aside – that Hooper has managed to assemble for this misfiring incarnation.

At its very best – namely, in Hathaway’s show-stopping rendition of central theme I Dreamed a Dream – Hooper’s distractingly frenetic, Dutch-angled camerawork thankfully falls away, replaced by a sedate, unblinking eye that perfectly complements Fantine’s melancholic warbling. Hathaway herself embodies everything good about this gaudy, Gallic romp; an elegant star performer who unfortunately departs the central narrative for far longer than some may have expected. Worse still, with her absence comes the realisation that Hooper has placed his trust (and his audience’s ears) in the not-too-capable hands of Messrs Jackman and Crowe. Though both capable actors on their day, in this type of bolshy, extravagant opera-like scenario, the limited vocal range of both actors fails to impress – leaving behind only sour memories of Pierce Brosnan’s dire contribution to 2008’s Mamma Mia!.

Hammy camerawork and duff delivery aside, Les Misérables’ biggest crime is arguably its lack of true spectacle. Hathaway’s centre piece excluded, we see little of either the grandeur or the great poverty of the age, instead caught in a strange hinterland of Gothic cathedrals and dodgy French accents (Sacha Baron Cohen provides yet another by-the-numbers comic turn in an otherwise humourless feature, this time channelling ‘Allo ‘Allo’s master of disguise Officer Crabtree). Make no mistake; for fans of the Broadway/West End smash hit musical, such flaws may well disperse as quickly as cannon fog. For others however, it may well prove this award frontrunner’s great undoing.

Daniel Green