Here’s why I shouldn’t be reviewing Les Misérables. Because I don’t like Les Misérables. There, I said it. Boom.
I don’t like the shameless melodrama, I don’t like the repetitive music, I don’t like the dopey second-half love story, I don’t like the absurdity of Javert’s obsession with Jean Valjean (at some point, Javert became a comic figure to me, a 19th-century Where’s Waldo).
I’m not talking about Victor Hugo’s novel, which I’m sure is miraculous. (The Cliff Notes were miraculous for me back in high school, if you know what I mean.) I’m talking about the musical, which is only a few steps better than an Andrew Lloyd Webber musical. And don’t get me started on Andrew Lloyd Webber.
But maybe you’re different. Maybe you’ve seen the show, which held the record for the longest running play on Broadway, numerous times. Maybe you own the soundtrack, plus a Les Miserab-mug, have the Playbill framed in gold on your bedroom wall.
If so, I suspect you will love Tom Hooper’s Les Misérables. Because it’s the musical, writ large. It’s angstier! The love story is shmoopier! The French Revolution is revolutionary-er! (Ahem). The production values are certainly high—the thing feels expensive (although some of the CGI is a bit creaky) and important. There’s a sense of grand purpose among all involved. Not one fan of the play will feel they have been short changed.
Hooper does something either clever or fatal here, depending on your perspective. He shoots the actors singing in close-up, reportedly all in one take. This leaves room for lots of eyes welling with tears, lots of voices quavering with genuine emotion, lots of EXTREME method acting on display. It makes the play all the more gut-wrenching, I suppose. But to me, it bordered on absurdist comedy. To sustain the level of melodrama in Les Misérables, one needs some artifice, some distance. This is why the play works well—or at least better—on the stage. All of this excessive emotion up close just reminds us how over-the-top the plotlines are, how silly they seem when grounded in a pseudo-reality.
I blame Hooper (The King's Speech), who made this choice. But I certainly can’t blame the actors. They generally acquit themselves well, especially Anne Hathaway, who as I’m sure you’ve heard, delivers a fairly transcendent version of “I Dreamed A Dream.” (If you’re going to do this sort of thing, no point in doing it halfway. Hathaway fully commits. Not so with Russell Crowe, who always seems a bit like Admiral Stockdale—“Who Am I? Why Am I Here?”—as Javert.) Hugh Jackman also deserves recognition as Valjean. His vocal talent, studly good looks, and all around solid-guy aura almost single-handedly keeps this thing from going off the rails. And Eddie Redmayne is keeping the Year of the Ginger afloat. His singing voice is beautiful (who knew?) and he pines for Cosette (Amanda Seyfried) manfully.
But count me out. Les Misérables didn’t move me, it exhausted me. I felt a need to cleanse myself with something spare and minimalist, something that earned my emotional response, when it was done. Anyone have a copy of the Ingmar Bergman Criterion Collection I can borrow?