“I dreamed a dream in time gone by, when hopes were high and life worth living.”
My hopes were high when I entered the theater and the Oscar hype was worth living, but it proved to be just a dream as I walked out disappointed and unfulfilled.
Based on Victor Hugo’s novel set in 19th century France, former prisoner Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) turns his life around for the good despite having policeman Javert (Russell Crowe) on his tail for breaking parole. Early on, Valjean promises Fantine, a young, dying factory worker, he will care for her daughter Cosette (Amanda Seyfried). The story takes off from there, spanning nine years of Javert chasing Valjean, Cosette growing up and finding love, and the Paris rebellion.
This film adaptation had been in the making since 1988. It took 23 years for it to finally come into fruition, when producer Cameron Mackintosh selected Tom Hooper to direct the film. With that much pressure riding on him, along with the Academy Awards lurking around the corner, I have no doubt Hooper sought to make the best film musical he could. Unfortunately, the elements were not in his favor.
In terms of acting, the casting choices were outstanding. Hathaway gave an exceptional performance as Fantine, vocalizing her hardships with intense emotion. She excelled as both an actress and a singer; Jackman and Crowe, on the other hand, needed help with the latter. I couldn’t tell whether they were trying to sing their songs or talk through them. Though I believe both to be talented and capable singers, they could not hit their notes in the songs; it appeared unnatural as they attempted to belt them out.
I found the younger actors, especially Eddie Redmayne and Samantha Barks, delivered the best vocal performances. They hit their notes, looked comfortable singing in front of the camera, and were made for this stage. This film didn’t just need great actors, it needed accomplished stage performers. Jackman and Crowe proved to be anything but and it hurt the film greatly because they were cast in leading roles.
Unlike any other musical film, Hooper had the actors sing live on camera instead of using recordings to give the actors more emotional control. I am in favor of live performances, but question why they had to sing throughout the entire movie? I need a little dialogue with my musical numbers and Les Miserables had none. It was hard to follow because no break was ever granted from the musical undertone, which could be rather choppy and inharmonious at times.
I also found it hard to relate to the film, not in the sense of events occurring, but on an emotional level. I know what love, heartbreak and sadness feel like, but I did not experience those emotions along with the characters. My greatest joy took place when Thenardier and Madame Thenardier, played by Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter, entered the scene and provided a little comic relief. Not to mention singing the one song I knew, “Master of the House,” from an episode of ‘Seinfeld.’
However, if happiness is the only emotion I felt watching Les Miserables in its entirety, I am guessing something is wrong with this picture. I will give credit to the costume and set designers, who provided an appropriate amount of 19th century design and culture without going over the top. The special effects and choreography, as well, did not appear too extreme or desperate for an Oscar bid. And thank goodness he chose to nix the 3D option he had been toying with. It adds an element of immaturity and grandiosity, two conditions that would have only elongated Hooper’s list of mistakes.
I have no doubt this film will earn top dollar at the box office and have the audiences singing its praises. As a film musical lover, I was not impressed. Talented, small-time stage performers should have been used in place of big-name actors and an even balance of explosive dialogue with the live singing was sorely needed. I can only hope that the tiny gold man named Oscar agrees with me in late February.