Oscar Blindspots: Les Misérables

It might be 10 years late, but I’ll be catching up on all the Oscar nominees and winners I have missed from the year 2012. Yes, it might just be one film, but it still counts.

Celebrating its 10-year anniversary, Tom Hooper’s Les Misérables garnered eight Oscar nominations (winning three) and made $441 million worldwide.  But with ten years of hindsight, is the film a success, or an odd footnote in the long history of filmed musical adaptations?

Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) is a French prisoner in 1815.  Released from prison following a 19-year sentence for stealing a loaf of bread, his parole prevents him from finding work or lodging.  Shown compassion by a priest, Valjean breaks his parole and assumes a new identity with the intention of leading an honest life.

In 1823, Valjean is a respected factory owner and mayor.  Former prison guard and new police chief Javert (Russell Crowe) arrives and begins to suspect his true identity.  One of Valjean’s factory workers Fantine (Anne Hathaway) is unjustly fired and put into the streets.  She is forced to sell her hair, teeth, and eventually her body to support her daughter Cosette, who lives with the Thénardier family (Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen).  Valjean promises the dying Fantine he will care for Cosette.

In 1832, Valjean becomes a philanthropist to the Parisian poor alongside the now-grown Cosette (Amanda Seyfried).  The young group of revolutionaries led by Marius (Eddie Redmayne) looks to protect the starving commoners.  Along the way, Marius also falls in love with Cossette.  Javert attempts to infiltrate the revolt while obsessively pursuing Valjean.

Hooper gives the 19th Century French setting the first-class crafts the film needs.  Production designers Eve Stewart and Anna Lynch-Robinson provide each Parisian street with the correct amount of fifth while still maintaining the stagey set pieces necessary to break into song.  Costume designer Paco Delgado is equally stellar, providing the upscale suits for Valjean as well as the rags of the Thénardiers.  On the flip side, cinematographer Danny Cohen lights the film in muted grays, which is by no means eye-catching.

Hooper himself seems poorly suited for the adaptation filled with fisheye lenses and one-on-one point-of-view shots.  Hot off the success of The King’s Speech, Hooper feels hand-picked by momentum, not because he is ready to take on the material.  The director is supremely out of his depth, which puts the film on unsteady ground from the beginning.

Each actor is well-suited for the roles, but that’s only half the battle.  Acting and emoting is one thing, but successfully acting with a vocal performance is another.  Hathaway sets the bar.  Her performance as Fantine is brief but electric.  She goes from desperate to wounded in record time, but her desires are ever present in her show-stopping number “I Dreamed a Dream.”  Hathaway is able to combine her considerable acting talents with the power and gravity of her vocal abilities; something no other performer is able to do as well as she.

Jackman makes the best with the character of Valjean, but the singing never fits.  Jackman has made a steady career of mixing acting and music, but his talents lie in the upbeat modern musical stylings.  With Valjean, Jackman tries to tone down the theatrical singing for the film emotion and it never gets all the way to working.  Redmayne is much more suited for his role with the tenor of a boys choir, but the uniqueness of his pitch and delivery are rarely utilized to be effective.

Crowe gets the bulk of the criticism, but I found his gruff and monotonous delivery to be transfixing.  Presumably, Crowe was hired to be the actor and not the singer.  He is very effective as an actor, but his alien-like scream-singing delivery is unlike anything ever put to film.  In other films like La La Land or Sweeney Todd, actors without stellar singing voices have a tendency to underplay each song or performance, bringing it down to a talk-like whisper.  Crowe goes in the exact opposite direction and belts each melody to the highest degree.  Is it good?  No.  Is it utterly captivating?  Absolutely.

I wouldn’t call Les Misérables an abject failure, but it shouldn’t be classified as an outright success.  The stage musical is a classic for a reason.  For some reason, director Tom Hooper had all the right elements in place. Unfortunately, his own misguided view of how the film should be resulted in a wildly forgettable film.

Check out my picks for the Best Films of 2012

2002 Oscar Blindspots
Judy Garland @ 100: Meet Me in St. Louis

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One comment

  1. Well, I actually would disagree- I love this film, which actually started my love for Les Mis

    One small mistake in the summary- the leader of the students is actually Enjolras, not Marius. I am a massive fan of the musical


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