I was recently talking to one of my fellow film bloggers when the subject of this year’s Oscar nominees came up. After I told her that I thought that Beasts of the Southern Wild was the worst of this year’s nominees, she rather vigorously shook her head and said, “No film this year was less deserving of a nomination than Les Mis.”
Now, I have to admit that it’s rare that her and I ever agree on anything. For instance, she thinks that Barack Obama is going to save the world whereas I … well, let’s just say that I don’t. She watches Glee and I would watch Community if it would ever come back on the air. However, we do usually agree about films and, in fact, our friendship was initially the result of our shared loathing for Avatar. So, I was curious why her reaction to Les Miserables was so different from mine.
In her own words, Les Miserables was “bombastic” and over-directed by Tom Hooper. She complained about Russell Crowe’s singing and she felt that Sacha Baron Cohen appeared to be acting in a totally different film from everyone else. The term “style over substance” came up more than a few times and she felt that even the things that did work — like Anne Hathaway’s draining performance as Fantine, Samantha Barks’ poignant work as Eponine, and Aaron Tveit’s charismatic performance as Enjorlas — simply served to highlight how uneven the film was when taken as a whole. Finally — and I think that this is actually the key behind a lot of the online backlash against Les Miserables — she admitted that a part of her reaction was due to the fact that she still resented the fact that Hooper’s previous film, The King’s Speech, defeated The Social Network for Best Picture way back in 2010.
What’s ironic is that I found myself agreeing with a lot of what she was saying. The fact of the matter is that Hooper does over-direct Les Miserables and the frequent jump cuts do tend to detract from the film’s performances. It’s not a coincidence that the film’s best performance is given by one of the few performers (Anna Hathaway, of course) who is actually allowed to sing an entire song in close-up without Hooper cutting away to distract us with something else. And yes, Sacha Baron Cohen does feel out-of-place and yes, Russell Crowe is a bit miscast in the role of Javert.
And yet, despite those not minor complaints, I still loved Les Miserables and I think it’s more than deserving of its nomination for Best Picture of the year.
Les Miserables in an adaptation of the Broadway musical that was itself an adaptation of Victor Hugo’s classic novel. The plot will be familiar to anyone who has ever taken an English class. In 19th century France, Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) serves 19 years in prison for stealing bread. When he’s paroled from prison, he adopts a new identity and starts a new life. Eventually, he becomes a factory owner and a local politician and is known for his kindness and honesty. When the tragic prostitute Fantine (Anne Hathaway) dies, Valjean adopts her daughter, Cosette. However, when the obsessive Inspector Javert (Russell Crowe) learns of Valjean’s true identity, Valjean and Cosette are forced to go into hiding. Many years later, the now grown Cosette (Amanda Seyfried) has fallen in love with the revolutionary Marius (Eddie Redmayne, who gives a performance that is just as good as Hathaway’s much more lauded work). As France descends into revolution, Javert again discovers Valjean, much blood is shed on the streets of Paris, and Sacha Baron Cohen keeps popping up and offering some awkward comedic relief.
Yes, Les Miserables is all about style and yes, it is a bit bombastic but is that necessarily a bad thing? I loved Les Mis specifically because it was such an old school spectacle. There have been several very serious, very sober-minded adaptations of Les Miserables and most of them, especially the nearly 5 hour French version from 1934, deserve to be seen. Both the Broadway musical and Hooper’s adaptation play up the story’s inherent melodrama and the resulting show is one that is designed to get more of an emotional response than an intellectual one. Tom Hooper’s Les Miserables is a film that has specifically been made for those of us who aren’t ashamed to shed a few tears at the movies. When I walked out of the theater after watching Les Miserables, I had mascara everywhere and I can’t think of a higher compliment to pay this uneven but ultimately triumphant film.