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Blu-ray Review: Les Misérables (2012)

Consistency, it is said, is the hobgoblin of little minds.  The problem is that that really isn’t where the quote starts, it is more complete to say “a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.”  Consistency can be a good thing, a really good thing.  Consistency is one of the few things that the 2012 filmic adaptation of Les Misérables lacks, and it is the one thing which the movie so desperately needs.

Directed by Tom Hooper, the film finds Hugh Jackman playing the lead, Jean Valjean, opposite Russell Crowe as Javert.  I hate the notion of piling on and much has already been said about the less then great nature of Crowe’s performance so let me get this bit out of the way quickly. 

Russell Crowe is a great actor and may be able to sing, and while the former may be in evidence here the latter most certainly is not.  Crowe is woefully miscast as a singing Javert and is one of the weakest spots in an otherwise generally strong movie. The movie wouldn’t be perfect with a different Javert, but it would be significantly improved. 

Now, with that out of the way, Tom Hooper’s Les Mis is an amazing film in terms of its ambition.  The novel and stage musical story has a massive scope, telling the tale of one convict redeeming his life through decades of work as the country around him struggles just as much with its own identity.  It is a love story and a war and a political tale and more all wrapped up into one.   We follow Valjean as he realizes that maybe he hasn’t been living his life the right way and he has to figure out who he is, who he wants to be, and what he owes the world around him.  It is a great story and it is well told here.

As has also been highly publicized about the film, rather than lip-syncing to pre-recorded songs, the actors sang live on set, and for the most part this difference between a traditional musical and what we have here works.  When the camera is relatively still and we aren’t treated to numerous unneeded cuts and dollies and dutch angles and camera trickery (as happens in “Valjean’s Soliloquy”), it is great (“I Dreamed a Dream”).  All the actors in movie are able to conjure up incredible amounts of emotion, and extra cuts and awkward dollies pull the audience out of that experience rather than bringing them in. 

On the other hand, the emotion conjured up by Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter as the Thénardiers is overly comedic.  The characters are, unquestionably, meant as comic relief, but with full sets and costumes and an overdone musical number in “Master of the House,” the tonal shift proves far too great.

Later in the film, Javert’s final number, “Javert’s Suicide,” ends with a sickening thud of a sound effect that is overly realistic.  It is another moment, tonally, that doesn’t work with the rest of the movie. 

The film does work, and extremely well, in its dramatic moments.  Anne Hathaway (Fantine), Eddie Redmayne (Marius), Samantha Barks (Eponine), and Amanda Seyfried (Cosette) all excel in their roles, particularly Barks and Redmayne.  The Marius-Eponine relationship is one doomed to failure, but watching the two actors sing together on screen is a wonderful experience. 

Inconsistency also exists within the film’s sets.  A mix of location and in-studio shooting, there are certain moments that have a realistic feeling (even on the set) and certain ones that don’t.  The café the revolutionaries plan their fight in seems perfect, but the street just outside is an overly theatrical representation (the Thénardier’s inn might be more at home in Moulin Rouge!). 

There is so much good here in Les Misérables.  The music is great and, save a few moments, the performances work as well.  Hooper, however, is unable to make all the bits and pieces flow from one moment—from one shot—to the next as they should and it constantly pulls the viewer out of the experience.

The bonus features on the Blu-ray set include a DVD, an iTunes copy, and an Ultraviolet one as well.  There is a director’s commentary and relatively brief look at the novel from which the film (and stage musical) was adapted, but the real highlight is an hour-long behind the scenes piece focusing on all the various aspects of the filmmaking.  It is a none-too-deep piece, but by virtue of its length it does offer some interesting bits.

Where the release is truly in top form is not with its bonus features, but rather its presentation.  It must be said that some of the darker scenes (and shots within said scenes) features more grain than others, but despite this shortcoming, the colors and details are excellent.  A whole lot of work went into the sets and costume design here and all of the little flourishes can be seen in exceptional detail.  The 7.1 DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack offers up excellent sound, with the sweeping, expansive score playing out around one.  It doesn’t stop there though, with background noises also provided to help situate the viewer.  It is true that not every singer is as intelligible throughout as one might like, but that feels to be more a product of the singing than the sound.

Les Misérables is a grand, sweeping motion picture based on a grand sweeping musical and novel.   And, as much as Tom Hooper’s final product may have some great performances, it has some awful ones as well.  There are areas where Hooper’s idea about singing live on the set work out beautifully and ones where it simply does not work.  There are odd tonal shifts and truly dramatic, involving moments.  There is, without a doubt, more good than bad, but on the whole it should have been better.

About Josh Lasser

Josh has deftly segued from a life of being pre-med to film school to television production to writing about the media in general. And by 'deftly' he means with agonizing second thoughts and the formation of an ulcer.

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