Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) didn’t want his sister’s child (no, sorry: son) to starve, so he stole a loaf (no, sorry: mouthful) of bread and — as a result — did four (no, sorry: 19) years in prison before escaping (no, sorry: being paroled) into a French society that traps its citizens between diametric systems of industry, religion, law and idealism, with only slivers spared for love. Somewhere in between, Anne Hathaway dies.
Let’s be honest: Les Misérables is a spectacular failure, failing to various degrees as spectacle, as drama, and as a musical.
It’s best as the first one, shot, wide-angle, in Parisian alleyways and small town factories and seaside brothels — designed and lit beautifully, and wily and cinematographic, as director Tom Hooper usually is, though there are handfuls of slopping editing, which choke already-breathless sequences; and the often-swooping camera, meant to mimic a celestial sense of adoration, too often strands the actors before it, leaving them bleating to the sky.
It fares much worse as drama: to be built on music, Les Mis doesn’t much value stillness — a shame, because the film is adapted from a musical which grew out of a concept album which is based on Victor Hugo’s socially uproarious 19th-century novel and because, as such, there’s plenty of room for honest (and honestly good, and goodly honest) kitchen-sink-and-all storytelling.
A kitchen sink is about the only thing missing from this, which has been overseen by the production’s original producer and creative triumvirate, in tandem with Hooper and writer William Nicholson. There’s just about room for everything else — whores and their children; prisoners and their dependents; innkeepers and their duplicities; outrage; eruption; revolution; sin; saintliness; God.
Room, rhyme even, but not reason. Hugo’s text has its place, and its power. As a movie, Les Misérables strains at the seams with the burden of catching up to the stage show, already out of breath trying to catch up to him. Its passions (depressions, despairs) should erupt, making harmony from humanistic cacophony. But everything swirls together. (So many French names! So many leitmotifs!) Red and black? Try gray.
By my count, there are more than 20 distinct numbers in Les Misérables. Maybe half of them hold their weight; a third are good. I’d blame lyricist Herbert Kretzmer, except he’s only a facile writer, with a love of soft-focus, Platonic metaphors and hymnal syntax — and not a terrible one; and I’d blame composer Claude-Michel Schonberg, whose score is brassy and stringed and too pat by half, except that that prettiness has hooks within its shallow depths. Their collaboration is a fine thing, negligible if not for its weight, but it props up a clankerous, many-pieced production, prone to whirligig ridiculousness about — of all things — a failed student revolution. Why, in multiple key moments, have multi-part harmonies where a third voice intrudes, singing exposition that strains toward poetry? Why not.
Want to know the worst part about Les Misérables? When it isn’t failing, which it isn’t doing for only a bit of a nearly three hour running time, it almost floats. For this act of levitation, I credit Hooper and Nicholson, musical newbies both, for sorting out and making temporal-spatial-cognitive sense of all that happens to everyone in the course of the story (no small thing, really: I’ve seen productions that leave half the audience stranded by intermission). The narrative still edges toward pageantry, but at least it’s followable — a key thing, really, because it allows you to plug right into its best performances, which are nearly great.
Much has been made of Hathaway’s spin on Fantine’s “I Dreamed a Dream,” and much more will follow: she collapses each line into a thunderclap of emotion, and follows through on each of the song’s suggestions, including its righteousness. The performance, done mostly in one take, will probably win her an Oscar.
If I were in a generous mood, though, why not cut that Oscar up and spread it out among other standout moments, including Samantha Barks’ rain-on-my-cheeks “On My Own,” Jackman’s crucial act one soliloquy, which cracks open with Baptismal rage, and the tingly-stupid chemistry between Amanda Seyfried and Eddie Redmayne, as two twentysomethings who learn the real secret of French happiness: not freedom, man. Love.