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Movie Review: Les Miserables

By Bob Garver

Jan. 2, 2013. For the past few months, just about every movie I’ve seen has been preceded by a short documentary on the making of “Les Miserables”. The point most stressed in these previews is that every song in the movie is being sung live; that unprecedented steps have been taken to ensure that we do not have to put up with the phoniness of lip-synching. Needless to say, the task was a tremendous undertaking for everyone from the actors to the film crew to the musicians who recorded the score to match the actors’ pace instead of the other way around. Such a tremendous effort cannot go unrewarded, so I made sure to maintain a powerful respect for the film as its two and a half hours slogged along and its music, so painstakingly crafted, became more and more of a nuisance.

The film is based on a wildly successful Broadway musical, itself based on a 19th-century French novel by Victor Hugo. The story centers on Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman), a former prisoner who changes his identity and breaks parole to start a new life free from his label as a criminal. This does not sit well with Javert (Russell Crowe), a prison guard turned police inspector tasked with bringing Valjean to justice. Years later, Valjean’s fear of Javert causes to him inadvertently ruin of the life of a factory worker named Fantine (Anne Hathaway). Desperate to atone, Valjean adopts Fantine’s daughter Cosette away from a couple of crooked innkeepers (Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter) and raises her as his own. Cosette grows up and falls in love with a fiery revolutionary named Marius (Eddie Redmayne). Valjean struggles to evade Javert and protect Cosette without deviating from his own path to redemption.

The performances are all top-notch, as one would expect in a film made with such rampant dedication. Jackman is everything one could hope for in Jean Valjean: dashing, patient, brave and tortured. Hathaway absolutely nails “I Dreamed a Dream” (perhaps the most well-known song of the film) and will almost certainly earn an Academy Award nomination if not a win for her sadly-too-brief performance. I’d also like to bring attention to Samantha Barks, who turns out to be quite the scene-stealer as Eponine, the daughter of the devious innkeepers who harbors a crush on Marius. It’s hard to believe that Marius would chase after the sheltered Cosette when he has a tigress like Eponine in his life.

I can’t object to the quality of the music in the film, but I do object to its quantity. I can’t stand it when musicals insist that every line of dialogue be sung. They should do a big production number and then rest for a minute so we can get excited for the next one. The former approach is the reason why I hated the stage version of “Rent” and the latter is why I loved the 2005 film adaptation. “Les Miserables” consists of 49 songs, and while none of them are “bad” necessarily, their overabundance makes the greater ones seem less special and the lesser ones downright superfluous.

“Les Miserables” should only be seen by people who are prepared for two and a half straight hours of musical numbers. This is not a movie for people who aren’t particularly fond of musicals but think they can tolerate it for the sake of a loved one. That said, the film was made passionately and expertly and the effort has paid off. For better or worse, you’ll come out humming your favorite songs. I’ve got “Master of the House” stuck in my head myself, but I’d love to hear from you and find out which songs are dominating your brain. 

Two and a Half Stars out of Five. 

“Les Miserables” is rated PG-13 for suggestive and sexual material, violence and thematic elements. Its running time is 157 minutes. 

Contact Bob Garver at rrg251@nyu.edu.