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Movie Review: Universal Picture's Les Miserables (2012)

A fan of live musical theater reviews Tom Hooper's 2012 musical film adaptation.

There was a time in my life when I could sing the entire soundtrack of Les Miserables by heart. I spent a good portion of my teen years performing in musical theater productions, and although I never performed in Les Mis, the soundtrack played endlessly backstage and in my life. I have seen Les Miserables on Broadway twice and would go again in an instant. What I like about Les Mis isn’t so much the story, about a convict-turned-good who escapes his parole to start a new life, but the music. And Les Mis has a lot of music; almost all of the dialogue is sung rather than spoken.

I usually dislike movie versions of musical theater. The movies often feel campy, and, probably because the actor/singers prerecord their songs in a recording studio and lip synch them on camera, they feel a bit false. Because of this, I was prepared to thoroughly dislike director Tom Hooper’s 2012 musical film adaptation of Les Miserables.

As the movie opened, it took on an epic quality, but I immediately missed the simple opening of the stage version. Whenever the songs deviated from the soundtrack that I knew so well, it felt jarring to my ear. Sometimes they would simply reverse two lines in the song for no reason that I could determine. And there were new songs, added I assume to smooth a transition between events; I could have done without these new songs.

I was also underwhelmed with the singing of stars Anne Hathaway and Russell Crowe, who were probably cast more for their star power than for their singing ability. It is true that what Hathaway and Crowe lacked in singing prowess they more than made up for in acting ability, but the singing of the young actors who were playing Enjolras (Aaron Tveit), Marius (Eddie Redmayne), and Éponine (Samantha Bark), blew Hathaway and Crowe right out of the water.

There were also moments where the actors’ faces moved out of focus during close-ups that I found distracting. I’m not sure if this was a style choice; if it was, I didn’t like it.

That isn’t to say that I disliked the movie, in fact, I’d happily go see it again. Why? I will always love the music of Les Miserables. It is also apparent that almost all of the singing was recorded live on the set, adding immeasurably to the feeling of authenticity.

The acting is phenomenal. Hugh Jackman hits every emotional note in the starring role of Jean Valjean. Anne Hathaway’s Fantine is tragic. Daniel Huttlestone, who plays little Gavroche, has the perfect blend of adorableness and spunk. Amanda Seyfried is a perfectly sweet Cosette. I could feel Eddie Redmayne‘s Marius’ pain. And Aaron Tveit’s performance as Enjolras was absolutely captivating; when I saw Les Mis on Broadway, Enjolras seemed to me to be just an incidental character.

There were also some wonderful moments. My favorites were Sacha Baron Cohen’s spoken comic lines, which I assume were ad libs; Gavroche’s introduction to life on the streets; and Javert’s final seconds with Gavroche. The only scene that I strongly disliked was the stomach-turning, unfunny "Master of the House" scene.

During the screening of Les Miserables that I saw, the Hollywood entertainment industry audience, which likely included a large percentage of live theater goers, spontaneously burst into applause after some of the songs, and the applause at the end of the movie was longer and more enthusiastic than any that I can recall at similar screenings of other movies. Even before its official release, the movie was honored with a Golden Globe nomination for Best Picture - Comedy or Musical; Hugh Jackman and Anne Hathaway were also individually nominated for their performances. The cast received multiple Screen Actors Guild Awards nominations as well.

Overall, Hooper’s film adaptation of Les Miserables didn’t disappoint this Les Mis fan, and in fact it drew me in so completely, that there were tears.

Les Miserables is rated PG-13
Les Miserables opened in theaters on December 25, 2012.

Jen (California, USA)
*Jen attended a complimentary screening of Les Miserables.

Find more of Jen's movie reviews here.