At the end of Les Misérables, a two-and-a-half hour feelings-o-rama with enough melodrama to keep several TV soaps alive for years, I laughed for awhile, turned to my friend, and said, “Well. That happened.” It’s not a regular movie. It’s an event. It’s a spectacle. It’s something that happens to you. Seriously, I don’t even know where to start with this thing.
Well. Let’s start here: I am not a naturally receptive audience for Les Mis. I saw it on Broadway, and I saw it at my high school, and despite being unwillingly compelled by a lot of the music I violently hated it both times. The narrative is broken. The leaps forward in time do nothing so much as shatter whatever immersion you had going and replace it with confusion while you have to orient to a totally new set of circumstances for characters you’d just begun to know. The melodrama is like a mallet to the face. The broken narrative means that many of the moments of greatest emotional resonance fall totally flat, since there’s been no scaffolding erected to support them. But hate it as I did, I was undeniably intrigued by the idea of a film adaptation. I had similar feelings about RENT as a play, and found many of my frustrations ameliorated by the film. I was particularly excited to see how film, with its greater available scope, would reshape the revolution storyline, and how it might be able to use dialogue to fill in some of the holes that left the Emotional Events bloodless.
Also, I’m a vocalist, and it’s a lot of singing by a lot of talented people. I’m only so strong.
Having seen it, there are basically two things that make Les Mis worth the price of admission. First off, Anne Hathaway as the ill-fated Fantine is astounding. She owns every second of every scene she is in; you can’t take your eyes off her. When she sang “I Dreamed a Dream,” the camera on her beautiful, wrecked face in unwavering close-up, I did not breathe. Her vocal power and skill alone dwarf that of most of the other leads. (In case you didn’t know, all of the singing was recorded live on set rather than live-to-tape and lip synched, so what you hear is what happened.) I remember being disappointed that we didn’t get more of Fantine in the play, but the fact that we only spend about 20 minutes with Hathaway is a goddamn crime.
The second thing that happened is that Eddie Redmayne opened his mouth. I saw and enjoyed him in My Week With Marilyn, but I had no idea he could sing. He has power and he knows how and when to use it; “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables,” one of my favorites from the play, is especially compelling here. Redmayne lures you in close with his shattered affect as the song begins, then slams you into the wall on “My friends, my friends, don’t ask me what your sacrifice was for.” His performance, both acting and vocal, gives depth to an otherwise unsympathetic and basically stupid character. (I hate Marius, but not as much as I hate Cosette.) Really, the whole group of Les Amis de l’ABC (the young revolutionaries) are the high-water mark for ensemble work in the film. Unsurprisingly, the majority of them are theater actors from the West End production of Les Mis. They know what they’re doing.
As for the other leads, I don’t have a ton to say about them. Jackman is incredibly skilled, but his vocal style and tone have never done it for me, and a really bizarre directorial decision made a mess of “Who Am I,” Valjean’s vocal high point as far as I’m concerned. “Bring Him Home” was nice though. Seyfried is a lovely, light, high soprano, perfectly cast in an unfortunately substanceless role and giving a performance I’m willing to call a success only because it made me not want to physically set Cosette on fire – which, with a role that terrible, represents a significant accomplishment. Bonham Carter and Baron Cohen devoured every bit of scenery in sight, which I normally enjoy but found painful in this case, not least because Baron Cohen couldn’t seem to decide if Monsieur Thernardier was French or Russian or Cockney or what. And Russell Crowe, oh, Russell Crowe. You worked so hard, buddy. Seriously, it is clear that Crowe knew he was punching above his weight class and put in the commensurate effort to not sound like a sometime-rock star up against professional vocalists. Did he succeed? Not to my ear, but he’s inoffensive, and I appreciate how seriously he took the role. Why he was cast, I do not know.
Les Mis sacrifices narrative motion for emotional motion, propelling its audience on a veritable tidal wave of feels. I have never liked films or plays that make this decision, which is probably why I don’t like most musicals. But … but here’s the thing – for all that I found the first half insufferable, for all that I wanted to smash Marius and Cosette’s empty skulls together just to hear the ringing, when the young revolutionaries mounted the barricade and waved giant flags it was all I could do not to leap from my seat, screaming, “VIVE LA FRANCE!” There are enough feels in Les Mis for everyone, whatever your poison. Mine, it seems, is rebellion. There's a fucking surprise.
So is it a success? I mean … no, not by most measures I normally use. It doesn't make sense and it's saccharine and there's large portions I hate and the giant ship at the beginning is the fakest thing I have ever seen, and when I’m judging your inclusion of a giant ship negatively it’s time for you to look at your life, look at your choices. But I gotta say, I found the second half undeniably compelling, which makes it pretty hard for me to judge folks who like the romance. Can I construct an argument in which the second half is more structurally sound than the first half? Please. Of course I can. But it would be covering up the fact that in reality, I just liked those feelings better.
If you were looking for coherence, you’re not going to find it here. My review, like the film, can’t figure out what it wants to say and contains many contradictory feels. Whatever opinion you thought I’d have, you will find it here. Mostly I am just glad Anne Hathaway won the Oscar, as I have never seen a performance quite like that in my life.