“Les Miserables” is reminiscent of an ostentatiously wrapped and intricately decorated present that holds almost nothing of value, beauty or substance inside. It falls flat and dimensionless upon its grand pedestal — a pedestal that director Tom Hooper (“The King’s Speech”) builds so formidably that it’s hard to believe everything on top of it is so spectacularly ordinary.
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The story of “Les Mis” might be familiar to those who have either seen the play or read the book. It’s a classic tale of good vs. evil, bravery in the face of oppression and a string of epic themes that could bring out tears in even the most cold-hearted human. In the background of this story is 19th century pre- and post-revolution France, and in the forefront is the story of a hunted convict and “slave-of-the-law” Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman, “Real Steel”).
Valjean, while constantly being sought by the relentless policeman Javert (Russel Crowe, “Robin Hood”), changes his identity and becomes mayor of a city. As a last act of kindness to a poor outcast, Fantine (Anne Hathaway, “The Dark Knight Rises”), who’s forced into prostitution and abused until her death, Valjean adopts Fantine’s daughter Cosette (Amanda Seyfried, “In Time”) and raises her in secrecy while trouble is brewing all around them. The rest of the film is about the ever-mounting French revolution and Valjean’s growing inclination to join it.
Hooper’s version of “Les Mis” is let down primarily by his over-ambition. He tries to capture the essence of the epic stage musical that’s made the story such a success — the actors, much like their onstage counterparts, are clearly the film’s focal point and saving grace because they’re allowed the freedom to outshine the script (and often each other). But every character, save maybe Fantine, lacks depth. The film also suffers from a long, dragging script, which means that the emotional struggles endured by the characters eventually seem trite and irrelevant.
The film surmounts to an emotionally draining two hours by virtue, not of its script, but of its awe-inspiring actors. Along with Hathaway’s character, Jackman’s is probably the most comprehensively built and carries the weight of this movie’s monolithic scope on his shoulders. And Hathaway shines in her small-but-strong role in the first half of the film as the helpless mother unable to support her child. She has the potential, even, to sing her way to the stage on Oscar night.
But a string of other actors, including the A-list likes of Crowe, Seyfried, Helena Bonham-Carter (“Dark Shadows”), Sacha Baron Cohen (“Hugo”) and Eddie Redmayne (“My Week with Marilyn”), are left to make the most of one-dimensional characters that are either good or evil, irrespective of how and why. Carter and Cohen, playing the money-hungry innkeepers who act as Cosette’s temporary guardians, have probably the most unnecessarily senseless characters in the whole film.
Even Hooper’s decision to let the actors sing in front of the camera instead of adding on their studio-produced songs later contributes very little to the film except to make it more sappy. In fact, Hooper doesn’t leave many stones unturned when it comes to upscaling the dramatic value of this film — the frequent close-ups of actors during musical sequences, the magnified squalor of Paris’s streets, the relentlessly epic soundtrack in the background are all part of the scheme.
Everything about this film is a “little bit too much.” There are one too many tear-jerking close-ups, a few too many songs and, rather unbelievably, a bit too much epic. Hooper has vision, but he made two big mistakes with this film: He let his ambition and imagination run wild, and he exalted his cast more than the timeless phenomenon that is Victor Hugo’s “Les Miserables.”