I’ll begin with apologies for the time I’ve taken posting. Settling into a new day job has that effect. Also, beware of spoilers, but it seems like I’m late to this party anyway…
Usually you can be reasonably sanguine as to why things are classics. Even the dense and digressive Moby Dick has value as a study in narrative and a historical document.
So it was with that and much favorable input from friends that I sallied forth to (finally) see the film rendition of one of the most seminal musicals of our age: Les Miserables, Victor Hugo’s classic tragedy of redemption, justice, and the pathological French inability to be nice to people.
Hugh Jackman is Jean Valjean, a petty thief who breaks his parole to reinvent himself as a successful and honorable man, including adopting the daughter of a desperate prostitute he tried to rescue. But he is hounded by Russell Crowe’s Inspector Javert, a man driven by an inflexible sense of justice and the belief that once a crook, always a crook. Against a backdrop of a fresh Revolution in France, Valjean strives to do good to others and to evade of Javert’s persecution .
It’s a tale about suffering and human decency in the midst of poverty and despair, of love and the true meaning of justice.
Unfortunately it’s just not very good.
Now, before anyone gets to thinking so, I don‘t say that just because I don‘t like musicals. I co-starred in a production of Chicago when I was 17 and had an absolute blast. The bittersweet tragedy Man of La Mancha, the farce comedies Spamalot and a Funny Thing Happened On the Way to the Forum, the animated fantasy romance the Nightmare Before Christmas, and the musical episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer are all dear to me. And every single one of them is better than Les Miserables.
I will say in mitigation that the cast has no flaws save one, which we‘ll get to later. Hugh Jackman’s musical chops are well-established and his dramatic skills are top-notch. It is kinda funny watching his character age through the story until by the end he looks a bit like Beethoven, but it takes nought away from his excellence.
Russell Crowe is, it seems to me, somewhat underrated in both regards. You can tell that this kind of music isn’t his natural habitat. Folk/rock music like the kind he does with his band the Ordinary Fear of God is definitely a different animal, but like Michael Caine in the Muppet Christmas Carol, it’s almost more genuine for the fact that his singing isn’t perfect.
Anne Hathaway’s character, the above desperate dying prostitute, is the only one who adequately tugs at my heartstrings. Her sense of desperation, despair and violation was like getting repeatedly kicked in the stomach. It only falters in that her character arc is so short that it becomes mystifying what she was even doing in the story to start with. And again her singing voice is first-class.
The movie’s great innovation was to have the actors sing on camera without dubbing it in again later, so the sound isn’t as clean but it also seems more in the moment, with characters out of breath or their voices cracking with emotion at the appropriate moments, except for Samantha Barks last number, wherein she’s able to sing quite clearly despite having just taken a musket ball through her right lung, but details, details.
All of this is great material, despite a lot of critics saying the singing was no good. The singers do very well, but it’s not their fault that the music itself is, well, boring.
In the other musicals I’m acquainted with, the songs are deployed strategically, usually to establish a new character or plot element or at important turning points.
Les Mis kind of does that, but instead of creating distinctive, memorable, punchy songs for key moments, the characters are singing almost constantly, including in conversations. They don’t even appear to have much of a tune or melody most of the time, so it isn’t so much singing as it is talking on key to express things that could easily be expressed in normal speech. Dressing it up in music is therefore distracting where it ought to be compelling. Worse still, what tunes there are almost all sound the same so it mostly bleeds together in my memory. The Nightmare Before Christmas burns each number into your memory for all time, but this sounds like a long recording of Josh Groban doing voice exercises.
It’s also not helped by the fact that the lyrics show occasional signs of being written but not read. Valjean approaching the little orphan Cosette in the dead of night and saying ‘tell me where you live’ falls rather creepily on modern ears. The worst, or possibly best, is when Russell Crowe is preparing to fight the revolutionaries and vows “they will wet themselves with blood.” Unfortunately, the melody structure puts a momentary rest between “wet themselves” and “with blood” so this domineering policeman wearing his Legion d’Honeur and declaring himself in almost Wagnerian tones appears for an instant to have promised to make the rabble pee their pants.
All of that would be merely disappointing, but what kills it dead for me is that that this tragic work of high romance has a story so untidy that I am puzzled as to where the emotional engagement it claims to induce could be coming from.
I don’t know whether this goes all the way back to the source, but it’s an essay on its own. The repeated jumping of decades to get to a given moment or scene means that the character development is erratic or nonexistent. Anne Hathaway is put through hell and made out to be the key to Valjean’s redemption, only to drop dead in favour of her daughter who we don’t even meet for several more scenes.
Valjean’s paranoia about Javert is fair enough, but he somehow turned from loving father-figure into murderously clingy during one of those time skips. The revolutionaries and Valjean don’t appear to have any connection for the longest time, so that the whole Revolution side of the plot leaves me thinking ‘isn’t there a redeemed criminal whose journey I was supposed to be watching?’ And the finale lionizes Valjean and the Revolution together despite the fact that Valjean had no part in it and wouldn’t have gone anywhere near it except for selfish reasons of his own.
Basically, it’s a case of trying to come up with all the tragedy, pathos and drama they could imagine but forgetting that a plot connecting these things in more than a superficial way is what gives them impact. The Hugh Jackman/Anne Hathaway segment would have made a great movie on its own but the film dispenses with it and then keeps going for another two hours. The Revolution would have been great story if it hadn’t been plastered onto the last third of a bigger movie. People die because the plot requires them to, not necessarily from any clear cause. People behave in a way that wrings out the most tears, rather than out of logical motives. Love is superficial and immediate, since we’re in too much of a rush to make you cry to bother with characterization. I still wanted everything to turn out as okay as possible but I also wanted it to hurry up and do so because I was getting incredibly bored.
And finally, someone needs to explain to the writers what ‘comic relief’ means. Because it doesn’t mean it’s a relief when it stops. The innkeepers who are Cosette’s adoptive family and who treat her like a slave end up stalking Valjean for the apparent offense of giving them lots of money. They are dirty, nasty and selfish and keep coming back and making complete gits of themselves. Comic relief is supposed to lighten the mood, make you feel like even in the darkness there’s some light. It’s not supposed to take the darkness and put a clown face on it. I also think it represents the one error in casting this movie; the innkeeper is played by Sacha Baron Cohen of Borat fame, whose first big break in comedy is possibly the worst mistake in BBC history. I know, it’s supposed to be funny, but I remind you that deliberately obnoxious is still obnoxious. The last time they showed up, just as we were gearing up for the denouement I actually said “Oh Christ, not these cretins again” aloud in the theatre.
So, before this review starts rivaling the movie for length, it’s got great acting, visuals and story elements behind it, but Les Miserables spends too much time trying to make us weep and not enough giving us actual people to cry about. The music is monotonous and beneath the talents of the people singing it, the characters never get to the third dimension and I have read hurt/comfort fan fictions with better plot structure. Similarly to Snow White, the kind of overwrought melodrama that these ‘classic’ stories use is hard to take seriously when so many other stories can achieve the same emotional effect by way of character depth and strong storytelling.
So with apologies to my many, many friends who liked it, I’m afraid I remain dry-eyed on the matter.