Why Bother with “Les Misérable”?


4.5/10

Les Miserables Poster

To me, the whole idea of making a film based on a musical is ill-conceived. A musical, performed on stage, is by its nature spatially limited. A stage production can’t so easily change scenes, so the song and dance routine is a way to pace the narrative while making the most out of each set design. This works naturally on stage, in a theatre, on New York’s Broadway.

This method of story telling, though, doesn’t transfer well to the movie screen. After all, movies need not be bound by spatial limitations. The action on screen can take place anywhere a camera can go and the transition from one scene to the next can occur instantaneously. Why filmmakers would intentionally choose to restrict themselves to the limitations inherent in stage productions when films provide boundless sceneries is something I don’t understand, and “Les Misérable” (2012) brings me no closer to the understanding.

Of all the musical films I have seen, “Les Misérable” is the most relentlessly musical. Every dialogue–I mean every dialogue–is sung. The characters can’t even get through an introduction or a salutation without singing.

Nor are there any scenes in which the characters simply act. Instead, the film hops from one ten-minute singing scene to the next dancing routine, with little to no transition between each. The fade to darkness that is the standard bridge between two acts on stage has been replaced on screen with a view that zooms out to the sky and zooms back in to Paris. Subtitles indicating that a few years have passed while the camera zoomed away only add to the unartful clumsiness of the transitions.

Of course, it’s possible to pull off a film musical; “The Sound of Music” (1965) comes to mind as the gold standard. But the key to making this concept work is for the filmmakers to realize that they’re ultimately making a film, even if they’re adopting a material that is originally on stage. This means that the entire film can’t consist of singing. There needs to be scenes where characters are naturally acting in between the scenes in which they break into dances.

“Les Misérable” never understands this, so the film gets hopelessly grounded at each sequence in which the characters sing and dance. As a result, the film never develops a naturally-flowing narrative until the climax of the film when the young revolutionaries take to the streets, which is when, not so coincidentally, the singing is mercifully suspended.

Casting is a vexing problem that usually sinks musicals, but to be fair, “Les Misérable” is no “Mamma Mia!” (2008), which distinguished itself as a musical film that gave no consideration to whether its lead performers can sing. There are no assurances that established actors have singing abilities, and I’ve generally found that actors who are not established in Hollywood tend to make the best performers in a musical. Alas, that holds true of Eddie Redmayne as Marius, whose solid acting supplement his strong singing.

What was pleasantly surprising were the performances of Hugh Jackman’s as Jean Valjean and Anne Hathaway’s as Fantine. As the lead, Jackman not only had to perform strongly in the musical scenes but also had to carry the film through his acting. Hathaway’s role in the film is much more limited, but is no less memorable because she pulls off the critical “I Have a Dream” sequence.

On the other hand, Russell Crowe’s performance as Javert is memorable for all of the wrong reasons. It’s not just that Crowe can’t sing. It’s that he feels completely out of place in the scenes he’s in and lacks conviction in the character he’s playing. I can’t recall the last time I saw an actor who was so poorly miscast in a major production. Every time he appears on screen is a cringing moment, which is rather fatal for a co-star.

Thénadier, the inn-keeper who holds custody of Corzette, is played by Sacha Braon Cohen of “Borat” (2006) and “Bruno” (2009). While his performance isn’t bad in the way Crowe’s is, it isn’t particularly commendable either. Cohen perhaps had the most difficult role because his task was to provide comedic relief to a serious material, and to do so while singing and dancing. He dances and sings with Helena Bonham Carter, who played Madame Thénardier, just fine, but he doesn’t live up to the expectations that comes with his casting as a comedian.

“Les Misérable” has just enough to make you appreciate what a great production it must be on stage. But it’s difficult to see the point of making a film to increase appreciation for the stage production. An epic story like Les Misérable deserves an epic film. An adoption of a stage production seems far too small in scale to do justice to the original material on screen.

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2 Responses to “Why Bother with “Les Misérable”?”


  1. 1 Jay the Elitist February 25, 2013 at 8:35 pm

    I agree with everything you just wrote other than the 4.5 out of 10 part. That’s some harsh stuff!

    • 2 joesas February 26, 2013 at 10:31 am

      Jay the Elitist,

      How can you agree with everything I said (“unartful clumsiness,” “hopelessly grounded,” “the singing is mercifully suspended”) but think my rating too low! We agree to disagree again, sir!


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