Page to Screen: Les Misérables (2012)

Les Misérables
based on the musical based on the novel by Victor Hugo


Here’s how effective the anti-pop culture bubble I was raised in is—despite being a French-American Anglophilic theater freak, I had never seen or heard Les Misérables until I went to go see the film. I had heard “One Day More” (how can you not?) and “Master of the House”, but other than that, nothing. You’d think nothing could be more up my alley, but I was not moved. As we all know, the musical adaptation of a Victor Hugo novel for me is, and will always be, Disney’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame. My big Christmas release was going to be Django Unchained, but my father wanted to see it, so it became a family outing.

Les Misérables tells the story of Jean Valjean, a recently released convict whom no one wants to hire in 19th century France. When the kindly Bishop of Digne gives him shelter, Valjean repays his kindness by stealing his silver, but when he’s caught and brought back to the Bishop, the Bishop protects him and sends him on his way, asking him to use the silver to do good things. Valjean breaks his parole, disappears, and eventually becomes the Mayor of Montreuil-sur-Mer. But Valjean’s former jailer, the fanatical Inspector Javert, is appointed Montreuil’s police inspector and soon becomes suspicious of the Mayor, especially as the Mayor takes under his wing Cosette, the child of a former worker who was turned out from his factory. Valjean and Cosette go on the run—for the next sixteen years, as Javert pursues them, and through the June Rebellion.

In watching Les Misérables, I was reminded of nothing quite so much as The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. Both films manage to turn frantic pacing into something exhausting, both films are too hesitant to slice and die their source material, and both films have transcendent moments that ensure their place in film history—“I Dreamed a Dream” and Riddles in the Dark, respectively. Because Les Misérables is such a universally beloved musical, I completely understand the impulse to not change a thing, but theater and film are two very different, albeit related, animals; some allowances must be made. (The lone addition, “Suddenly”, is not a welcome one.) Had, for example, the first act been judiciously edited and trimmed, it would have had time to breath, instead of hurtling between exposition and numbers at such a fast pace my mother had to take a nap after a matinee showing. It would also frame the 1832 scenes, the film’s best half, a bit better; I would rather be delighted to see them instead of just relieved.

Compounding the exhausting pace are the cinematography and the quick edits—Danny Cohen and Tom Hooper rely a great deal on close shots, hand-held shooting, while editors Melanie Ann Oliver and Chris Dickens’ work is often so frantic that you don’t have a chance to focus on the honestly gorgeous production design. When done well and combined with more traditional camerawork, it gives the film a tense reality, but when overused—and boy, is it—it compresses and flattens the epic scope of the film. When my favorite musicals make it to film, I’m always excited to see how the scope will be expanded, and, while the first scene does so brilliantly, it’s only really in the film’s last third that we get a handle on the world of Les Misérables. Faring much, much better is Hooper’s choice to film the singing (the film is almost entirely sung-through) live on set, which focuses much more on the emotion of the songs rather than the musicality.

This approach extends to the casting, which focuses much more on acting than on singing. Among the very well-cast actors (Helena Bonham Carter, going for bawdy rather than crazy as Madame Thénardier, finally endeared herself to me here), only Rusell Crowe’s voice is visibly out of place—but, then again, Javert is visibly out of place, believing in black and white morality as the other characters live in a world of grey. As for the music? Well, there’s a reason the show is almost universally beloved, and the film does justice to its biggest numbers. The Oscar buzz Anne Hathaway has been getting for her performance of “I Dreamed a Dream” is utterly deserved, and well worth the price of admission. “Master of the House” is a breath of fresh air, being both comic and relatively stable in camera movement. And “One Day More” shows the film at its best, cutting between its various participants even as it stirs your soul. If only the whole film lived up to it…

Bottom line: Les Misérables is a wildly uneven film, whose frantic pacing, cramped cinematography, and hesitance to change the source material hurt it. However, its transcendent moments utterly work. If you’re prepared to work for it, go see it.

I saw this film in theaters.

6 thoughts on “Page to Screen: Les Misérables (2012)

  1. Nice review. I’m very undecided about going to see this, because despite not being raised in a pop culture wilderness, I have never listened even to one song from Les Miserables and have no previous attachment at all to the source material. That is probably unusual.

    • I’d wait for the DVD if you’re remotely interested, simply because you can give yourself an intermission. The cinematography is so cramped that I don’t think you’ll miss anything not seeing it on the big screen. And I think it’s good to hear a musical’s songs in context first, most of the time, and Les Mis is sung-through, so it’s hard to separate score and story.

  2. I haven’t gone to see this because of my intense dislike of Russell Crowe. He seems like he is crazy and would probably hit you with minimal provocation AND he can’t sing. And once a girl’s heard Philip Quast sing “Stars”, it kind of ruins her for other deliveries of it, but definitely ruins her for Russel Crazy Crowe Who Can’t Sing singing it.

  3. My best friend and I both discussed The Hobbit and Les Mis being very similar in terms of ambition and flaws. In many ways, these movies frustrate me more than bad or merely mediocre films because, for but different editing/directing/casting/scripting/filming choices, these could have been great films. There’s so much good in both of them that it’s doubly frustrating to have to deal with bad pacing and editing (and in Les Mis’s case, annoying camerawork).

    What do you think of Les Mis being nominated for Best Picture and not The Hobbit? Genre ghetto, I guess, although I’m more worked up about The Dark Knight Rises not getting any love and I personally wouldn’t have nominated either Les Mis or The Hobbit.

    • Les Miserables‘ pedigree is better, in the eyes of Oscar—based on one of the greatest novels of the nineteeth century, based on one of the most successful musicals of the last thirty years, packed with stars, a director taking “chances” (Hooper did not invent live singing, he’s just the first to pick up in a long, long time), and packed with plenty of tragic setpieces for these stars to act their hearts out in. An Unexpected Journey lacks these things and it’s a franchise now. Part of it is probably due to genre ghetto, but considering Les Miserables is basically For Your Consideration: The Movie and An Unexpected Journey is Jackson’s Temple of Doom, I think it’s less of a factor than usual.

      And the actual victim of the genre ghetto this year is Skyfall, although Adele is a lock for the song.

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