I was really excited for the movie and it made for a wonderful way of celebrating Christmas. When I walked into the theatre, it was packed, and that was saying something considering that it was a big theatre. It was a good thing I claimed my seats early.
Regardless of this film's quality, I formed some opinions beforehand. First, any Les Miserables film is better than no Les Miserables at all. It's a story that needs to constantly be retold, and I can live without seeing my dream version realized onscreen so long as good versions come out to refresh this story's place in our super-paced international culture.
That being said, this is a version of Les Miserables, not the version. It lacks a full, comprehensive sense of grace and elegance as it takes on the monumental task of translating the musical's nonstop singing from on stage to on screen. I wasn't a fan of how the camera was constantly on the faces of the actors with extreme close-ups, nor how the only time it wasn't handheld was when it was making sweeping, creative shots similar to the artistic style of Baz Luhrmann, which didn't make for the quintessential Les Miserables experience. There were far too many times when I was conspicuously aware of how creative the director was getting with the camera, particularly during character songs. The place where it fit the most was with the Thernandiers, with which is became delightful fun and the style came to some fruition.
The characters also took times to speak, as seen in the trailer, but contrary to what the trailer suggests, the movie is actually incredibly faithful to the play. Essentially all the songs remain, and some are even added. I was honestly expecting the director to cut several of them in order to create for a smoother film. It looks like he couldn't bear to part with them, which is just as well, because I doubt 99% of the audience could, either. The consequence of this is the afformentioned problems with trying to make it all fit into a graceful screenplay, hence the comparisons to Baz Luhrmann instead Tom Hooper's previous film, The King's Speech, with which I would have preferred more stylistic similarities.
There were times when this style realy worked, though. Whenever there was a character with heavy makeup on, such as the Thenardiers and the prostitutes, it worked wonderfully and it felt like an appropriate translation of a stage production into a cinematic piece.
Then there were any and all scenes involving Fantine. I was, of course, aware of Anne Hathaway's presence, but she brought a lot to the role, and she could sell to me that Fantine looked like her. I realy like her as Fantine, especialy after she cut her hair in realtime. As a side note, it was also really cool that they kept her hair cut for when she appears to Valjean as an angel instead of depicting her Hayen-Christianson-as-Anakin-Skywalker-style. In general, she was a brilliant highlight for the film and my favorite version of Fantine.
The Thenardiers were also very fun. Sacha Baron-Cohen was perfect for the Mr. of the couple and fit into the role in the way I had always seen it in my mind's eye. He's another favorite to come out of this film. Helena Bonham-Carter, meanwhile, fit into her role and might be someone's favorite, although I've seen enough renditions that I can think of an actress whos performance I have liked better.
However, if we are to nitpick, the beginning of the film has its problems. The singing at first didn't initially seem to fit. Far too much of it was directed in such a style that it seemed Tom Hooper didn't want it to sound like singing, but...Come on, it's a musical. Far too often, Valjean sounded a bit more hoarse than he needed to be. It made sense, but at the same time, it was done in such a way that it robbed the character of some of his power. Javert, meanwhile, was a stark surprise when he first started singing, but his voice was something I got used to fast by the time his next song came up.
The style of the film continued to suffer with trouble finding a visual grace that matched that of the music until sometime after Valjean received his pardon from the Bishop of Digne and broke his parole, somewhere in the second act. Before I move on to that, though, let me take this time to praise Colm Wilkinson as the dearly beloved Monseigneur Myriel. Not only is he my favorite Valjean, but he's also my favorite Bishop of Digne. He brings a lot to the role, an amazing sense of grace, and there's a little bit more to the role by the end of the movie where he's played up just a little more than past renditions of the character. It fits, considering the profound impact he had on Valjean. I can't tell anyone exactly what little extra bit they did with the character; it would ruin the surprise. But I loved it, and it helped complete the experience for me.
Anyway, the filming style was still awkward at that point. Then Valjean sings into the camera, which follows him around while simultaneously employing creative angles and extreme close-ups. Then it performs a dramatic zoom to Javert as the movie flashes forward.
And then it finds its way with Fantine. Yes, I believe that's where the film comes to some maturity. It got better as it got along and the style found itself.
Meanwhile, some of Javert's explanation on the supposed discovery of Jean Valjean isn't explained in song, or at least not fully. The song after the real Valjean lifts the cart isn't fully explained. This isn't a widely popular song, though, so having that cut just a little short doesn't hurt anybody. The scene where Valjean confessed his identity before the court lacked a bit of grace. The story was good, but the director was really straining himself.
Then Fantine sang about Cosette and I cried. The last time this happened to me during a movie was six or seven years ago when I watched Schindler's List. Hathaway's chemistry with Jackman really brought out something in his performance, although Jackman had yet to fully grow into the role. That much didn't happen until he picked up Cosette, refused to be fooled by the Thernandiers, and sang the original song "Suddenly". Then the movie skips ahead several years, and he's definitely Jean Valjean.
Don't get me wrong. I really wanted to be convinced by Hugh Jackman, and I had confidence in his acting. However, due to the directing where the camera tried to tell the story and other factors, it turned out that it took a little longer to accept him in the role than I would have liked, and Jean Valjean doesn't really, truly come to life until the third act. Other people might interpret the acting in a different way, although, and perhaps others will find it more powerful than I did. There's a buzz, after all, of this performance being Oscar worthy.
Now, at to the third act, I congratulate Samantha Barks on her breakout role. I also commend the lesser-known actor who played Marius Pontmercy. Amanda Seyfried, however, doesn't have much to bring to the role of Cosette as an actress. It was a lovely role, and I found myself liking her, although it had nothing to do with Seyfried's acting. She just didn't screw it up with bad acting. Her singing, however, was quite good and had a certain quality about it that really sounded right for the character, and I can see why she was cast. Between her, Marius, and Eponine, this love triangle forms some of the greatest singing in the movie. Enjolras was also a great singer, another with a classic voice that adds some of the play's elegance to this screen epiction.
The third act also fully immerses the film in the world of musicals. That world opens up, broadens, and brings together its full cast, from the central characters of Jean Valjean and Javert to the next generation of characters who fight in the student uprising. The sets get more use, and the characters are given more freedom to act during scenes of revolution.
From here, I really have no qualms with the style that haven't already been said, but at least at this point they've all settled in so that they fit as naturally into the story as they can. Valjean dies, and boy is it a death. I really have to give this a lot of credit for being a great movie ending.
So at the end of the day, what is my analysis of the film? Those faults in directing style don't upset me much. I personally really liked the new faces of Hathaway and Baron-Cohen in their respective roles. Others might find favorites in Bonham-Carter and Crowe in theirs, who each did their parts justice. Jackman, meanwhile, is presumably a better singer than the style of this movie lets on and should have been given the opportunity to really let loose and give Valjean's voice the operatic grace it was meant to have in order to give the role its true power. He was good during songs such as "Who Am I?" where he let his voice go free, but was more restrained during the beloved "Bring Him Home" prayer. Still, he managed to play Jean Valjean and channel the role. The same goes for Crowe, and both of them definitely deliver good acting performances that will be remembered more than their singing. I don't realistically see a ton of Oscars around the corner for this movie, although it will certainly get nominations, with a Anne Hathaway having the greatest chance of winning one.
This is a film version. It's frozen in time. It can be used as an official standard, should people use its unchanging nature to those ends. However, it won't. People who see this as a stage production will discover that it's the medium where it's the most powerful. This is just another version of Les Miserables, and I was expecting something new, so to heck with the timeles standards. I have to appreciate Tom Hooper for taking huge risks with this movie, and though in places I don't think the style lived up to hopes, the story was solid. This is Les Miserables we're talking about (I would have put those words in italics for emphasis, but seeing as they're for a title, I already have), and in whatever form it comes in, it makes a perfect Christmas present with a great story about redemption, compassion, and the special worth of all human life.
Speaking of which, before the clock strikes midnight, Merry Christmas!