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‘Les Misérables’ too big for its own good

Grandiose musical true to story, stage, will appeal to the faithful

POSTED: December 20, 2012 12:31 a.m.

Confession is good for the soul, so here goes. I do not like the musical “Les Misérables.”

I know, I know, I have just offended some of you deeply. I apologize for my blasphemy.

If you want to write nasty letters to me, that is of course your right, and my email can be found below. Rest assured, many people in my life, one of whom is very close to me (hello dear), have already told me how wrong I am.

Wrong or not, it’s very difficult to review a movie musical when you dislike the source material from which it is adapted.

The musical was written during the 1980s, a decade which produced numerous stage musicals I can barely tolerate. This isn’t the worst of them by any stretch, but it is typical of its period.

While I don’t care for the music, trusted sources reassure me the film offers a faithful rendition of the original stage musical.

The story for “Les Misérables” comes from a Victor Hugo novel, which runs well over 1,000 pages in mass market paperback form. The narrative covers 17 oppressively sad years and a revolution.

To cover all of this story material, the musical shows us episodes from the primary characters’ journeys, and the film incorporates as many of these episodes as possible.

Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman), Fantine (Anne Hathaway), Éponine (Samantha Barks), Javert (Russell Crowe), Cosette (Amanda Seyfried), Marius (Eddie Redmayne) and others endure one awful, unjust misfortune after another.

It often seems like an attempt to stuff as much melodrama and tragedy as possible into one film. It’s as if we are each wet rags and the musical grabs us at both ends and keeps twisting until we’re wrung dry. It becomes exhausting rather than moving, as it should be.

The film dashes so quickly through its mountain of story that I found it difficult to sympathize much with any of the characters, despite their tragic circumstances. There simply isn’t much time for character development.

None of these flaws are the fault of the film, really. And I will freely admit it’s possible the problem isn’t with the film at all, but with me. Tom Hooper’s star-studded, much anticipated film adaptation features an abundance of impressive craft and ambitious storytelling.

The scope of the film is astounding, and it had to be to do justice to the musical and Hugo’s novel.

Where the musical had to imply thousands of people in the street, Hooper has the luxury to actually use thousands of extras and to shoot on location. Filmed throughout the UK and France, the locations add a depth to the film that probably has never been reached on stage.

Thanks to the locations and wonderful cinematography by Danny Cohen (who worked with Hooper on “The King’s Speech”), the film looks sumptuous. The costumes, colors and general spectacle are something to behold, especially when we reach the revolutionary section of the film.

Perhaps the most ambitious aspect of the production, though, is that all of the vocal performances were recorded during filming, something no other film has done on the same scale.

It pays off. The actors rise to the occasion and the performances are made stronger by their “live” quality.

Jackman, Hathaway and newcomer Barks are all receiving well-deserved praise. Hathaway is an early favorite for a Supporting Actress Oscar, and it’s hard to imagine Jackman not being nominated.

The only exception among the cast is Crowe. He certainly has the presence of Javert, but his voice just isn’t strong enough for the role.

If you are a fan, you will likely be thrilled by the film. If you are not already a fan, you may leave wondering what the big deal is.

“Les Misérables” will please the faithful but won’t win over newcomers. It certainly didn’t win over this one.

Jeff Marker teaches film and literature at Gainesville State College. His reviews appear weekly in Get Out and on gainesvilletimes.com/getout.


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