Let me preface this review by professing my unrequited love for Victor Hugo’s classic novel Les Miserables. Set in 19th century France, its stirring tale of wretchedness, grace and redemption made it my favorite novel in the world despite its lengthy nature and numerous digressions on almost unrelated topics. So it was with great anticipation that I awaited Tom Hooper’s epic adaptation of the stage musical. And much like the original work itself, this film is often a breathtaking and incredibly poignant journey that intermittently plods along due to some of its slightly less engaging elements.
The plot hardly needs to be retold but for the two uncultured brutes who need it, the main narrative thread of Les Miserables is of course the story of Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman), the bitter ex-convict who just spent 19 years in prison for stealing bread. Despite transforming himself into a saintly new man, Valjean is forever unable to escape his past, as personified by the relentless police inspector Javert (Russell Crowe) who continues to hunt him down over the course of many years for breaking his parole.
It’s a sweeping story that has captured the imagination of millions since the novel was first published in 1862 and for the most part, stars Hugh Jackman and Russell Crowe deliver the goods thanks in part to their great charisma. Less compelling however is the love story between Valjean’s adoptive daughter Cosette (Amanda Seyfried) and the young revolutionary Marius (Eddie Redmayne). While I was entranced by the written version of it, I think the major issue here (and with the various incarnation of the stage musical) is the fact that important sections of Hugo’s novel are skipped over despite the film running nearly three hours: Jean Valjean’s entire relationship with Cosette as she grows into a young woman or Marius lengthy courting of Cosette are barely touched upon. While this might be forgiven by the many folks who are familiar with the novel, outsiders will lack the emotional buildup needed for the exhausting over-sentimentality of the third act.
But the good far outweighs the bad and when Les Miserables fires on all cylinders, it becomes the heartwrenching, overwhelmingly romantic journey that will drive you to tears. The rendition of the 49 songs which make up the near-entirety of the dialogue in the film were performed live on-set with Hooper using an abundance of lengthy, close-up takes. This directorial decision gives the movie a raw, intimate and almost live nature which magnifies its flaws but also underscores the fearless work of the standout cast.
Much has already been said about Anne Hathaway’s incredibly moving rendition of “I Dreamed a Dream” as the prostitute Fantine but the rest of the cast acquits itself quite well. Samantha Barks, who is by far the better singer of the bunch, is equally outstanding singing “On My Own” as Eponine and will likely breakout into many more Hollywood roles with her work here. And while I still don’t think Crowe was the right pick as Javert, he slowly settles into his role with a courageous performance.
It’s easy to understand why Les Misérables has remained one of the most enduring and popular musical since its inception in 1980. When it comes together, it’s a stirring, soaring and even exhausting experience, so much so that you will be willing to forgive its bombastic nature and its numerous flaws.
tl;dr: It will rain on your face.