I didn’t walk into Les Misérables with a whole bunch of high expectations. I knew about the Oscar buzz, but I didn’t think I had the patience to sit through a two-and-a-half-hour emotional gauntlet. I still don’t have that patience — the film felt like it was about an hour longer than it actually was — but I did enjoy myself. The reason for that is because Les Misérables is a musical masterpiece that will have me humming “Can you hear the people sing?” for the next month or so.
The story of Les Misérables revolves around Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman), an ex-con who is having trouble re-acclimating himself into society. All poor Valjean did was steal a loaf of bread so that his nephew didn’t have to stave to death, but because he ran from the law, he got locked up for a long time and has been doing a lot of slave labor. At the opening of the film, Valjean finishes his jail sentence and is set free, but the “bad guy” of the film, Inspector Javier (Russell Crowe), sets him up with papers that basically make it impossible for him to find honest work. Valjean is free, except he’s really not.
So Valjean goes out into the world and finally find a church to crash at when he’s at the point of starvation. The church gives him food and a bed, but Valjean gets greedy and sets out in the middle of the night with a bunch of stolen silver. He gets caught, but the man at the church is a total bro and lies for Valjean, saying that the silver was a gift. Now with a second chance, Valjean swears to become an honest man, and he rips up his papers, saying goodbye to his former self.
Eight years later, Valjean has become a mayor and factory owner in a suburb of Paris. He’s going under an assumed name, but it appears Valjean has completely escaped his former self. One day, a worker in his factory, Fantine (Anne Hathaway) is fired by the foreman and becomes terminally ill. Feeling responsible, Valjean promises to adopt Fantine’s child, Cosette (Isabelle Allen, Amanda Seyfried). That would be all well and good, but at the same time, Javier shows up on assignment to protect Valjean’s town. Eventually, the inspector comes to recognize the former prisoner, and the chase is on.
At its heart, Les Misérables is an epic battle between two opposing forces. Valjean is avoiding the law as a means to an end. He has to leave his old self behind in order to be a good man and provide for Cosette. Javier represents Valjean’s past always coming back to haunt him. According to Javier, “once a thief, always a thief.” Valjean must be brought to justice, no matter the cost to Cosette or anyone else.
Thanks to the strength of their characters, whenever Valjean and Javier are on screen at the same time, the tension and excitement is nearly tangible. Unfortunately, the film introduces a love triangle about halfway through that is a lot harder to care about. You see, Éponine (Samantha Barks) loves Marius (Eddie Redmayne), but Marius only has eyes for Cosette, despite not really knowing anything about her. Meanwhile, Marius has clearly known Éponine for longer, and she’s pretty hot. But no, Marius has got to go for the girl whose father is a fugitive and also highly overprotective. Good luck with that.
There’s a lot of singing and heartbreak over this love triangle, but it becomes played out quickly, and all we really want to know about is how Valjean and Javier are going to be involved in the budding revolution that is going on in Paris.
Enough about the plot. The best part about Les Misérables is the music, and the best part about the music is that the actors actually sung their lines live on set. Les Misérables feels real and doesn’t have that lip-synch feel that plagued Mamma Mia. Plus, Hugh Jackson delivers with emotion and feeling, and it’s pretty impossible not to root for Valjean. All the guy did was steal a freaking loaf of bread.
Crowe’s performance, on the other hand, leaves you wanting a little. It’s true that Javier seems like more of a robot than a man who can feel feelings (and this becomes more true as the film progresses), but Crowe could still deliver with a little more oomph. Still, his performance is not a disaster.
Stealing the show, at least in the early going, is Hathaway, who delivers a heartbreaking performance as Fantine. I haven’t seen every movie this year, but it definitely felt like Hathaway locked up the Best Supporting Actress trophy in her limited time on screen.
Even if you’re not a huge fan of heavy drama and feelings, Les Misérables delivers with some truly epic music and a couple of fantastic acting performances. There’s also a couple of brutal battle scenes at the end that keep the film exciting at the end. Unfortunately, there’s little humor to be had, and what there is is laid on thick by Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter as the innkeeping couple known as the Thénardiers.
It’s not that the Thénardiers aren’t funny. The problem is that the humor is lost on the other characters in the film, who are so deadly, deadly serious. It would probably be better if the funny lines were more evenly distributed among the characters than for the film to march out these two clowns whenever the audience needed a pick-me-up.
The fact that a film called Les Misérables isn’t a knee-slapper shouldn’t surprise you anyway. What the film does, it does very well. It is an intense, fun, musical ride that will probably be enjoyed by anyone who can appreciate good drama.