25 December 2012 | Counthaku
Solid overall, with some hard-hitting sequences
Having never seen the stage version of Les Miserables and having read limited reviews of the film, I honestly didn't know what to expect from Tom Hooper's Les Miserables. After experiencing the film earlier today, I can say it was a tremendous experience.
I felt the first thirty minutes or so were the strongest of the entire film, plunging us into the despair and conflicts of various characters with adroit narrative thrust so that not a moment feels wasted or redundant. Two of the three (in my opinion) gut-wrenching musical numbers come in this section- Anne Hathaway's "I Dreamed a Dream" (which, if I recall correctly, was filmed largely in a single take) and Hugh Jackman's "Who Am I?". I can only speculate but, compared to the stage version, being able to take in every facial nuance in the film version seems to make the moments of crescendo and soaring strings pack so much more of an emotional punch. Both Hathaway and Jackman also deliver top-notch performances, and it's hard to imagine anyone else fitting the role of Valjean as well as Jackman.
Thematically, the film also shines in this section. Here we are introduced to the major theme of forgiveness for the first time, through Fantine we tap into maternal bonds as well as disillusionment, and Valjean's struggles explore the conflict between not only public and private selves but also reconciling our own personal interests with what is morally correct.
It seemed curious to me that the bleakest moments of the film (at least for me) came at the beginning, which made it impossible for the film to regain that same sense of gravitas as the story progressed. While the remainder of the film was certainly entertaining, it felt both less emotionally involving and less taut than the beginning.
Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen provided some much appreciated comic relief, but their antics seemed oddly out of place in this film at times, and often left me feeling as though I were watching Sweeney Todd again. Russell Crowe, while certainly no vocal powerhouse, did a fine job as Javert, although I found his final number to be oddly anti-climactic. The younger actors gave fine performances as well, with Samantha Barks demonstrating the most potential and Eddie Redmayne surprisingly delivering the final gut-wrenching number, "Empty Chairs at Empty Tables." The thematic exploration of the rise and fall of idealism makes this sequence especially poignant.
Artistically, Les Miserables is a feast. The production design is top-notch, with meticulously crafted sets and props. Makeup and costumes are definitely noteworthy as well. Many of the shots of Paris have an artificially beautiful aesthetic to them, and every crane shot adds a sense of beauty and scope to the piece. Editorially, the film makes takes advantage of cuts to characters in different locations or concurrent events which would not have been possible in the stage version of Les Mis.
One minor complaint from a filmmaking perspective was cinematographer Danny Cohen's method of framing characters. Conventional cinematography typically frames actors so that their faces are demarcating either the left or right third of the screen, with the camera positioned so that their subjects are turned towards the remaining two thirds of the screen. In Les Miserables (though thankfully not to the same extent as in The King's Speech), a few times the characters are positioned so that they are facing the other direction- the edge of the screen. Though I imagine the filmmakers were attempting to add visual flourish to the film, I found this technique oddly jarring, drawing me out of the film and making me conscious I was watching a movie.
The film does regain some levity in its rousing finale, which ties the film together in plot, theme, and song. Despite the minor issues I had with the film, I found it to be a hard-hitting and rousing work of art. I could probably sum it up best by noting that this is the first movie I've been to where even old men were wiping their teary eyes by the time the credits rolled.