Les Misérables (2012)

Rating: C-

Dir: Tom Hooper
Star: Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, Amanda Seyfried, Eddie Redmayne

There are two things I require from musicals: they must be hummable (Stephen Sondheim can fuck right off) and there must be pauses between the songs, for people to act, because you really can’t generate much in the way of drama when you’re having to deliver your lines in tune. If everything is sung, it’s not a musical, it’s an opera, and you’d better be damn sure you have a large lady wearing a horned helmet. These are my prejudices: deal with them. This succeeds a good deal better in the former territory than the latter, and I couldn’t help thinking that with this degree of acting talent on view, I’d have preferred to see this done as a straight historical drama/action film: I note the 1998 adaptation, with Liam Neeson and Geoffrey Rush, which mught be worth a look. I didn’t generally feel that the songs added too much to it, except running time. And at 158 minutes, there was already plenty of that.

It’s the story of convict Jean Valjean (Jackman), jailed for five years for stealing bread to feed a sick relative, whose sentence ends up nearer 20, due to his escape attempts. Finally released, his life is turned around, but due to the limitations of being a convicted felon, he has to take another identity. Eight years later, that incurs the suspicion of prison guard turned cop Javert (Crowe), who believes he recognizes the now-mayor as a former felon. No, wait. It’s the story of Fantine (Anne Hathaway), who works for Valjean, but gets fired and is forced into prostitution to support her daughter.

Hang on. Never mind. She’s dead, killed by one of those peculiar terminal illnesses, only found in musicals, which have no effect whatsoever on your ability to warble. Skip nine more years on, and it’s the story of her daughter Éponine (Seyfried), who has been adopted by Valjean. But barely do we get to know her, and it’s over to focus on some French post-revolutionaries, led by Marius (Redmayne) who are planning to rebel against a government that… Oh, I dunno. Probably represses the poor. The usual. He falls for Éponine at first sight, and immediately begins behaving in ways that positively scream, “ordonnance restrictive”. And Valjean appears to have caught Fantine’s disease. I sense a final warble in his future.

Ok, some suspension of disbelief is almost essential for musicals, and it’s probably clear from the above that I couldn’t quite get there. The most interesting character to me was Javert, whose devotion to duty and the state was far more admirable, to me, than Valjean, who didn’t even learn his lesson after two decades in jail, then suffers an unconvincing conversion to good, and hey presto, suddenly becomes mayor. I understand that some editing is needed, given 2,783 pages of source material, but what’s left doesn’t make much sense, and I was also firmly on the side of the French authorities. That said, when the songs are good, they’re very good, and I’ve found myself whistling Look Down and Master of the House more often than I’d expect. And Hathaway’s I Dreamed a Dream, largely filmed in a single shot, provides great evidence against what I said above, about the problems of acting when you’re singing. Still, it leaves about 140 minutes that aren’t as good, and by the end, the title might have been referring to those in the audience who, like me, remained grounded in reality.