Unreal Movie Review: Les Miserables

Three hours of singing. It doesn’t sound terribly appealing to those who aren’t a frequent patron of live musicals, but in this case, you shouldn’t let the concept keep you away. Tom Hooper’s Les Miserables is a sensational film, and its proof that though we keep telling the same stories over and over in different ways over the years, there’s always ways to keep things fresh as visual media keeps evolving.

Those in attendance might not understand exactly what they’re in for. We hear “musical” these days in regards to mainstream films, and think of Dreamgirls or Chicago. These are more or less traditional films with maybe a dozen musical numbers crammed in between the dialog.

But not so with Les Miserables. Of all the lines in the film, a solid 98% are sung. Yes, that includes big musical numbers, but also traditional conversation. It’s singing for the entire duration of the film, but the truly amazing part is that it rarely gets tiresome despite the movie’s 170 minute running time.

I am consistently more and more impressed with Hugh Jackman with each new movie he’s in.

The story is familiar for many, unknown to some. The movie takes place of a period of years during the French Revolution. It follows the journey of Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman), a criminal turned upstanding citizen after he breaks parole assumes a new identity. Always on his tail is Javert (Russell Crowe), a French inspector determined to bring Valjean to justice no matter how many years it take.

Valjean takes pity on a former worker in his factory that is forced into prostitution after his foreman fires her without his knowledge. The woman, Fantine (Anne Hathaway), sells her hair, teeth and body to support her daughter Cosette (Isabelle Allen), who she’s left in the care of a pair of despicable inn owners, Monsieur and Madame Thenardier (Sacha Baron Cohen and Helen Bonham Carter).

Valjean eventually comes to care for Cosette as his own, and she grows up into a beautiful young woman (Amanda Seyfried) who falls in love at first sight with a French revolutionary, Marius (Eddie Redmayne). Valjean must keep his true identity a secret while attempting to deal with his daughter’s affections for the presumably troublesome lad.

Well that escalated quickly.

In a word, the film is powerful. Yes, it’s gorgeously shot, but the true magic comes through in the performances of every actor involved. Les Miserables is the first musical to use live recordings of the songs being sung on set, rather than dubbing over the voice track later for the songs the way nearly all other films do.

The result is a series of emotional singing performances the likes of which you can only find on Broadway. In other musicals, someone might sing with a pained look on their face, but here? It’s something else entirely. You only have to look at Anne Hathaway’s heartbreaking performance of “I Dreamed a Dream” to understand why this new system works. The fragility of her broken voice is simply awe-inspiring, and I write that sentence as a man who counts The Expendables 2 and Dredd as two of his favorite movies this year. The quality in these musical and emotional performances is simply unlike anything you’ll see in nearly any other film.

Can you have 20 minutes of screen time in a movie and warrant an Oscar? Yes.

It’s not perfect, no. It is a bit too long, and sometimes the conversational songs can take a relatively simple scene and make it far more complicated than it needs to be. The “love at first sight” plotline seems a bit rushed, which is odd given the length of the film. And though Baron Cohen and Bonham Carter’s characters are obviously meant to be hyper-exaggerated comic relief, they seem entirely out of place given the tone of the film they’re in. They actually feel pulled straight from Sweeney Todd, another musical which oddly, both were also cast in.

But though fatigue may set in near the end, the climax makes it all worthwhile, and even the most stoic of moviegoers might have their heartstrings pulled beyond their usual limits.

It’s a phenomenal film with performances from Jackman, Hathaway and Redmayne especially that simply can’t be missed for any fans of theirs, or musicals or movies in general.

4.5 out of 5 stars