Friday, September 27, 2013

Dreaming a Dream

Film: Les Miserables
Format: DVD from DeKalb Public Library on laptop.

I wasn’t sure about the fate of Les Miserables when contemplating the new additions for the latest version of The List. I figured it had a middling chance. On the one hand, it’s a modern musical, and The List loves modern musicals. On the other hand, despite its Best Picture nomination and the win for Anne Hathaway, everything I heard about it was pretty mixed. Some people loved it and others found it ridiculous, except for some performances. I suppose it got points for having the actors actually singing their parts live. Anyway, here it is, and as the longest film remaining, it’s time to put it behind me.

It’s worth noting that I’ve seen Les Miserables live on stage in Chicago. I say that to to stress that the version I saw live wasn’t like a high school production or amateur theater. It was good, I suppose, but musical theater genuinely doesn’t move me too much. It would be too much to say I hate it, but I’m not a huge fan. In truth, I’m not much of a fan of live theater in general. It just doesn’t do a lot for me. I’ve tried enough times to realize that it generally moves over me and leaves me unmoved.

And that makes this one difficult, because this is not merely a musical film, but something akin to opera. So no talking, just singing. For the most part, the casting was smart enough to get people who can actually hold a tune, and this is extremely helpful. There are a few exceptions, although I evidently disagree with some people on this. We’ll get to that later.

One thing that Les Miserables has going for it is that it is incredibly plot-dense. There’s not a lot of fat to trim here, and virtually everything is central to the plot. That said, the plot is also fairly meandering at times. I’ll do my best to keep this brief, because if I tried to get to every in and out of the story, we’d be here all day. So, at the beginning, Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) is released after 19 years in prison. His crime was stealing a loaf of bread, but his time was virtually quadrupled for repeated escape attempts. His tormentor is Inspector Javert (Russell Crowe). Given a new lease on life by priest, Valjean disobeys his parole and goes off to make a success of himself. A bad decision on his part leads to the torment of a young girl named Fantine (Anne Hathaway), who eventually becomes a prostitute as a way to support her illegitimate daughter.

Eventually, Valjean discovers what he has done to Fantine and determines to take care of her daughter Cosette (Isabelle Allen, who grows up to be Amanda Seyfried). Javert discovers who he is, and in Javert’s world, once a criminal, always a criminal. Cosette and Valjean run again, this time to Paris. Javert always pursues, forcing them to live in secret. Meanwhile, the greedy and evil innkeepers (Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter) who once took care of Cosette follow along, hoping to wring more money out of Valjean. Their daughter Eponine (Samantha Barks) is in love with a young radical student named Marius (Eddie Redmayne). A chance meeting causes Cosette and Marius to fall in love at first sight. This happens just as the students plan a massive revolution. There’s more of course, but this will do.

So let’s talk about some of the high points here, and there are plenty of high points. As mentioned earlier, the bulk of the cast can more than carry a tune. Hugh Jackman puts in one of the great performances of his career here, and he is far more effective than I would have predicted. The same is true for Anne Hathaway. Fantine doesn’t survive the first hour of the film, but she is unquestionably one of its most memorable parts. Because of the constant singing, it’s difficult to tell one song from another, but her version of “I Dreamed a Dream” is absolutely soul crushing. If I had to pick the best part of the film, it’s her without question. Samantha Barks is equally memorable.

I’m also impressed by the scale of the production. It’s grand, to say the least. Additionally, the decision to have all of the actors sing the parts live is genius. It adds a visceral nature to the proceedings. It would not have the same immediacy if the actors had been lip-synching instead of actually singing their parts while acting.

Now the problems, some of which are a part of this particular production and some which are a part of the source material. I may be in the minority on this one, but I’m not a fan of Russell Crowe as a singer. He can carry a tune well enough, I suppose, but I genuinely don’t like his voice as a singer. Amanda Seyfried is a different problem; she warbles. She was genuinely difficult for me to listen to simply because she can’t keep on a note for longer than a quarter of a count.

A bigger problem is the odd decision that virtually everyone in the film speaks with a British accent. Okay, I understand that plenty of the actors are British, but it still seems like an odd decision for a film that takes place over a number of years in France. Perhaps I’m the only one bothered by this, but I was bothered by it.

But these are things I can live with. As I say, Russell Crowe can sing, but I dislike his voice, and Amanda Seyfried’s solo work doesn’t happen that often. The bigger issues I have are with the story itself. It’s too sweeping, too broad to really work well. At the core of the story, it’s about the battle between Jean Valjean and Javert. More specifically, it’s about the life of Valjean unjustly pursued for a crime of necessity and Javert’s realization that morality is far more complicated than the black-and-white world in which he lives. Honestly, the romance between Cosette and Marius seems the sort of thing tacked into the story as a required romantic element. In fact, this is true of the entire student revolution, which has little place other than a way to get Cosette and Marius together in the first place.

Ultimately, my opinion on Les Miserables is a difficult one. It’s a very impressive and noteworthy production of a story that I don’t like very much. And that’s as good as I can offer.

Why to watch Les Miserables: Be awed by the staging.
Why not to watch: Amanda Seyfried sings like a cartoon character.


  1. You're not in the minority on Crowe. In fact, you're in the vast majority. The biggest, most common complaint about this film was Crowe's singing. Next was the camera angles, zoom-ins, and close-ups.

    1. Am I in the minority on Amanda Seyfried? I think she was the most poorly-cast role in the film.

    2. Wow, I guess I'm in the minority; Crowe's singing voice was certainly different, much higher pitched than his deep dark brooding normal voice, but I found it quite lovely.

    3. I'm evidently in a small minority in thinking that he is capable of singing, but that his voice is somehow unpleasant.

  2. Nick beat me too it, but all I've heard is people pissing and moaning about Russell Crowe's singing. Honestly, I didn't have an issue with it. Could I tell Jackman had a better voice than him? Yes. Did I think Crowe was so horrible that it bothered me to listen to him? No. And I don't remember if any review I read mentioned Seyfried's singing or not. She had done the musical Mamma Mia before this, whereas Crowe's singing has only been done in his rock band, so maybe people were just used to the idea of seeing her sing, but not used to seeing Crowe do it.

    For me this film was recommendable, but only just. By about two hours in I was ready for the songs to stop and for them to get along with things. Some of the songs are showstoppers, and you pointed them out. Unfortunately, for me there were too many that were just bland ones that didn't stand out at all. I felt they could have cut 3 or 4 of those, brought the film in at two hours or so, and it would have been better.

    I also felt that the two innkeepers were about as fitting as a fart in church. They were obviously there for comic relief in what is a depressiving story, but their whole schtick just didn't work for me at all.

    1. Seyfried bothered me. I'm not a big fan of hers in the first place, but her voice genuinely bugged me.

      Agreed on the innkeepers. They are definitely comic relief, but they aren't that comic. Evil comic characters don't tend to do a lot for me in general, and in a musical, those characters are always so broadly played that I find them disturbing. They do have a plot-specific role to play a few times, so I'm not sure they could be eliminated.

      I think the goal here was to present the film as closely to the stage production in terms of content as possible, which precludes cutting.

      As it happens, I was speaking to someone last night who considers himself a Les Mis fan, and he told me that he walked out on the film because he couldn't stand it. Evidently for him, none of it worked.

    2. You described it perfectly when you mentioned the innkeeper characters were so broadly played. I hadn't really crystallized my reaction to what bothered me, but that is it. Everyone else is so damn serious and then here come these two thieves ripping people off, stealing out of their pockets, and without any real attempt to hide their actions, but no one notices them.

      I've never seen the stage play, but I also got the impression that they were trying to stick to it as much as possible. I do remember when the trailer came out and they showed a brief bit of Hathaway singing I Dreamed a Dream, fans of the stage musical were complaining because on stage apparently that song gets boomed out, but Hathaway could barely be heard in the clip. A movie is a different beast, though. You don't have to sing/act to the back of the theater. I felt Hathaway's delivery of the song was perfect for the movie and where her character was at the time.

    3. I agree with you on Hathaway. She plays the song exactly as it should be played in the film--it's a dark moment of the soul for her. It should be a quiet one, too. On stage, there's something to be said for playing to the back of the theater, but here, it's not necessary and it's better as she plays it. For me, it's the moment when I really started paying attention more than I already had been.

  3. Good review SJ. This is what happens when musicals are done right. Granted, the intense close-ups could be very uncomfortable at times, but the fact that they were all actually singing in the moment, really added more emotion to the whole movie.

    1. I didn't have a problem with the close-ups. There are emotional moments in the film that I think call for them. That we're not used to seeing them in musical theater doesn't lessen the value of them here.

  4. I got it from the library last week. I usually watch the "1001 List" movies from the library on Sunday, but I didn't get it until Monday. Well, Monday is "Gotham" night, then Tuesday was the vice presidential debate. Wednesday, we went to the special screening of "Young Frankenstein." Thursday, I just didn't feel like watching a three-hour movie.

    You may have guessed by now that "Les Miserables" isn't really my kind of movie.

    I finally watched it Friday and I liked it quite a bit. Oh, yeah, my mind wandered a lot, and I took a few breaks to walk the dog and get a snack and things like that. But it has a lot of people I like in it and it's visually stunning and the music is great. Newcomer Samantha Barks is impressive. And I've come to appreciate Russell Crowe a lot more over the last year. (He's not an actor so much as a performer, and he's very good at it! He reminds me of Richard Dix, Lon Chaney Jr, or Victor Mature.)

    It's not a movie I'm likely to watch as a whole ever again, but I can definitely see coming across it while switching the channels and then watching it for an hour.

    "Master of the House" was so familiar! I finally realized it was used in "Seinfeld" where George has it running through his head and he hums is constantly. And at the end of the episode, Elaine's father (played by my old buddy Lawrence Tierney) is singing it in his car driving down the road. One of the show's best moments!

    (I call him my old buddy because I used to see him around Hollywood all the time in the 1990s, on the street, on the bus, at the New Beverly Theater, and he was growly and cross and easily vexed, but he was still a very talkative dude who loved to talk about being in the movies. And gangsters! He loved to talk about gangsters! He told me that Dutch Schultz wet his pants and begged for his life when he was gunned down in the bathroom at the Chop House!)

    1. I stand by the conclusion I reached when I first watch it--it's a very well-made movie with a plot I don't really like. I wouldn't choose to watch it again, but if my wife wanted to watch it, I'd probably watch it with her.