Two questions were on my mind as I walked out of “Les Misérables.” How could a movie with a run time of 160 minutes feel so rushed? And how could such great characters feel so dull?
Worse, this is one of the few times where I considered not having read the book or seen the play an asset rather than a drawback. I reasoned (or perhaps felt) that this meant I could still be surprised, thereby experiencing “Les Misérables” in all its glory. After all, I'm a big fan of musicals, along with the passion and drama that stories set in the 19th century typically inspire. Plus, what little I'd heard about the songs left me wanting more, and it looked to have a spectacularly talented cast. So I expected I'd have to have to keep my gushing and swooning in check. Not the case.
Of course, our story mostly revolves around Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman, finally in a role where he gets to show off his talents), a man who was imprisoned for 19 years for stealing a loaf of bread. When he is given a second chance for a new life, he breaks parole and spends the next 20 years on the run from the inflexible, determined police inspector Javert (Russell Crowe).
The movie's main problem seems to be a rather common one when the material that is being adapted already has a devoted fan base: it doesn't want to make any major changes for fear of offending and alienating said fans. But the end result feels like you're watching a play onscreen, only without the intimacy, heart, and warmth you receive from live theater that keeps its audience coming back in an age of easily accessible entertainment. While there are some good views and effects that add to the larger than life feel of the story, throughout most of it I felt I could've gotten pretty much the same thing from the show.
And the lack of vision even detracts from the movie's best points, like its characters and songs. While nearly every character an artist creates exists to serve a certain function, all the characters here feel like little more than said functions. They feel all too disposable, detracting somewhat from the supposed goal to feel compassionate for those less fortunate. They all deserve better, especially when this lessens the power of what should be touching emotional moments.
For example, when Fantine, who's working to support her child Cosette, is fired from her job, she basically goes from that to selling her hair, teeth and body in about five minutes. (Apparently the French really don't waste any time.) And the one comment Javert makes about his background makes him much more intriguing, even sympathetic. They and other characters leave me wanting more, but they feel like all function and no substance.
The love story between the grown Cosette and Marius is also rather laughable. They are the bright spot in the dark, but they don't feel real enough. Numerous films, plays, and novels have sold the story of lovers who meet and fall in love at first sight and decide to marry without barely even speaking. (Anyone remember Romeo and Juliet?) But if your lovers are surrounded by as much pain, sadness, poverty, and death as these two are, it can make this kind of love story a tough sell, and these two fail to make the cut. The few glances and single meeting they share fail to make you believe. As a result, Disney's “Snow White” actually makes for a more compelling love story. And remember, the prince only sings to Snow White; she doesn't even speak to him.
That's a long list of strikes against it, yet “Les Misérables” actually rises above merely average, if just barely. The actors actually sang their songs live, and it shows. The characters may leave you unfulfilled, but the cast brings great emotional passion to what little of them you do see. When Anne Hathaway's Fantine sings “I Dreamed A Dream,” there were tears and sniffles in the audience; actually throughout the movie. (And if you say that I was one of them, well, you can't prove that. I had something in my eye, and I had a cold. You know, if you saw me.)
And while the love story may have failed to make much of an impression, other things did. The comic relief, with Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter as Mr. and Mrs. Thénardier, brought a laugh every time. Theirs and some of the other songs may have felt short, but they are every bit as spectacular as you've heard. They brought the right emotions; they made the audience feel them as well as sing them after they left the theater.
Furthermore, this has been the case with “Les Misérables” since the beginning. When the book was published and the musical came into being, critics scorned it, but the public begged to differ. And let's face it, if I didn't have that small, heartless part of me that was incapable of feeling real joy, I probably wouldn't be a critic would I?