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by Eric Kohn
December 21, 2012 9:24 AM
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Review: Is It Possible to Enjoy 'Les Misérables' If You Don't Know the Music?

Anne Hathaway in "Les Miserables." Universal
I never "Dreamed a Dream" or pleaded for "One Day More." But fans of "Les Misérables" -- the original stage musical adapted from Victor Hugo's novel, that is -- know those references well. Tom Hooper's big-screen adaptation works hard to pander to them. The moment Claude-Michel Schonberg's score kicks in, with the solemn baritone chorus of "Work Song," as hordes of imprisoned Frenchmen jointly lament their downtrodden lives, those smitten with this sprawling, mournful tale of the French Revolution might get goosebumps. That's mostly conjecture, of course, since when I saw this scene and countless others in Hooper's "Les Misérables" I felt no excitement over familiar tunes or the return of a beloved tale.

Instead, "Les Misérables" played to me like a mopey, at times notably beautiful but overproduced musical soap opera. While impressive in parts for its epic sweep, the movie is routinely marred by blatantly cheesy, self-serious flourishes, uneven performances and misguided attempts to puncture the theatricality with superfluous cinematic devices. Hooper's "The King's Speech" turned history into a crowdpleaser with the giddy payoff of a sports movie, an inoffensive trivialization compared to the director's treatment of this material, which becomes a bombastic eruption of baroque reference points and flashy showdowns. Relying heavily on close-ups over the course of a two-and-a-half hour narrative with almost no spoken dialogue, Hooper's approach comes across as the equivalent of sitting in the front row of a stage play while the entire cast leans forward and blares each song into your eardrums.

READ MORE: Futures: 'Les Miserables' Breakout Samantha Barks On Singing Live for Tom Hooper in the Rain and Being "Petrified" of Her Co-Stars

To be fair, some of them blare better than others. In roughly 10 minutes of screen time, Anne Hathaway delivers one of the most powerful performances of the year in the tragic role of Fantine, the despondent prostitute who dies early on, shortly after reformed criminal-turned-mayor Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) takes her under his wing and vows to rescue her young daughter Cosette (played in her adult life by Amanda Seyfried).

Hooper's approach comes across as the equivalent of sitting in the front row of a stage play while the entire cast leans forward and blares each song into your eardrums.
Cosette, a blond-haired witness to seismic shifts in French society, is a poster child for the story and yet its least interesting character. The other main players face intriguing conflicts stymied by a style that necessitates a stagy delivery in spite of the medium's capacity to push beyond those roots. Jackman, initially a downtrodden criminal, then a committed surrogate father and responsible citizen, shifts from the look of a disheveled loner to a chiseled hero without changing his enthusiastically open-mouthed delivery, the sort of ostentatious display that worked more in his favor as an Academy Awards host (Hathaway, by contrast, does penance for her own embarrassing Oscar emcee duties with a reminder of her capacity for onscreen fragility).

For the brooding, soulful character of Valjean, however, Jackman's delivery is a blandly overconfident display. At least that's better than the embarrassment of Russell Crowe, strangely wooden as the cruel Inspector Javert, who spends his days pursuing Valjean through his years as an escaped convict and refuses to accept the man's reformed ways. Both Jackman and Crowe make excellent tough guys in furious action vehicles, but here they're like toy figurines wound up and clashing against each other in a superficial display.

That doesn't mean "Les Misérables" isn't emotionally effective, but rather that its emotional effectiveness takes the form of an increasingly grating display. Like "Beasts of the Southern Wild," the movie hovers around manipulative triggers and frequently pulls them. The actors frequently cry in accordance with predetermined rhythms: Learning of Valjean's vow to help her daughter, Fantine wails, "Good monsieur, you come from God in heaven," as her voice cracks on cue; earlier, when rescued by a priest while on the lam, Valjean similarly breaks down while moaning, "one word from him and I'd be back on the rack."

Humorous turns by Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter as the thieving Monsieur and Madame Thénardier are comically out of sync with these wearisome displays, but they do provide reminders of how enjoyable the pair were alongside Johnny Depp in Tim Burton's undervalued adaptation of "Sweeney Todd." At least that violent, gothic display didn't beg for tears. In Hooper's "Les Misérables," the mopey songs arrive like a series of flowery excuse notes for a lack of originality, and even fans may be better off dreaming a different dream.

Criticwire grade: C

HOW WILL IT PLAY? Opening on Christmas Day, the movie is likely to perform well due to the popularity of the material and the lack of major competition (smaller audiences will turn to "Django Unchained," opening the same day, instead). With likely enthusiasm for its set pieces, the movie is sure to maintain visibility during awards season, but in a crowded year its chances of winning major awards (aside from a supporting actress nod for Hathaway) are slim.

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11 Comments

  • flor | December 24, 2012 8:31 PMReply

    Good courageous review

  • rose | December 23, 2012 3:20 PMReply

    The music is great, the scenery is majestic, the actors are great but the production does not gel

  • theresa | December 23, 2012 1:53 AMReply

    Great colors lots of ideas but a pour execution of one othe grat stories

  • ed | December 22, 2012 10:02 PMReply

    Great review. Do not get intimidated by adorators!

  • roland | December 22, 2012 8:45 PMReply

    This is a accurate review. I read the book, saw the opera and then watch the movie... Big disappointment! A great piece like this deserves better execuyion

  • Dana Gonzales | December 21, 2012 11:07 PMReply

    I find this critic heartless with no soul ..
    Obviously has never made a movie and I can only imagine
    What kind of film they do like... Les Miserables is the best picture
    Of the year... silver linings is great but LM is just that much better and crafted..
    Anne Hathaways performance is solving and Hugh Jackman deserves the Oscar ..
    And of course the the man who directed this film should be honored ..

  • Dana Gomzales | December 25, 2012 5:49 PM

    I guess only someone who has read the book and seen the opera can know how good or bad the movie can be... Each experience can not be its own.. They all have to match each other?
    With your qualifications you should become a movie critic ..
    Meanwhile I will vote for it this award season for the achievement it is..

  • jack | December 22, 2012 8:48 PM

    Obviously you have not read the book or saw a performance of the opera.

  • 1234 | December 21, 2012 12:46 PMReply

    It annoys me how critics who routinely prop up cheesy sentimental shit like The King's Speech and War Horse are suddenly cold eyed cynics when presented with genuinely emotional material from a classic novel.

    But what really annoying is Indiewire's inability to write a single article without talking about the Oscars. What do you guys do when the Oscars are over, go into hibernation? Every review does not have to talk about the films awards prospects , and articles titled "The 789 films eligible for Oscar consideration" are not of interest to anyone.

  • 1234 | December 21, 2012 6:45 PM

    Nah they been doing this shit since September. You missed all the articles declaring Silver Lining's Playlist the new front runner, but adding "that might all change since none of the main Oscar films have been released yet."

  • Andrew | December 21, 2012 12:53 PM

    Thats because its oscar season when all the award contenders come out. If you don't like it then don't read the articles. All people do is bitch and moan.