Les Miserables. Some detested it and some loved it. The film is so unashamedly committed to its theatrical roots that a case can be made for either side. I think it is a great musical and a magnificent hybrid of over-the-top Broadway extravagance and large-scale Hollywood production (though the film was made in the U.K.). But be warned: if you’re not a fan of either one, this is not the film to win you over.
The average musical has a few good songs, many average or mediocre ones, and some bad ones. However, there really isn’t one poor song in Les Mis and there arguably isn’t a mediocre one either. Not only does the movie repeat melodies effectively and overlap voices with skill, the songs build complex situations and moral dilemmas that are charged with emotion and conviction. In a film flooded with hundreds of actors and extras, the audience is presented with characters that face that age-old dilemma of struggling to do the right thing despite the circumstances in which they live. Because of this, Les Miserables is real and truthful in its depiction of human nature and emotions.
As many will know, the cast sings each song live. Their voices are not perfect by any stretch of the imagination, but do they have to be? The way their voices waver and fade into whispers adds power to their words that seems at home among the dirt, grime, and emotional turmoil of the French Revolution. Say what you want about Russell Crowe, but the entire cast rises to the occasion here. Despite singing live on the set and being filmed in close-up almost constantly, each performance is convincing and appropriate.
The first hour of Les Mis is excellently paced and the story is set-up in the most efficient way possible (considering that musical numbers are required). During this time, there is no lingering between scenes and each sequence connects seamlessly to the next. However, the film delays slightly when it introduces a love story and a handful of additional characters. It may not be enough to distract from the appeal of the story, but my only major criticism of the film is its nearly three hour runtime. Even though it would have been difficult for an adaptation like this to avoid such a length, the runtime will surely be a test of patience for many.
I have not seen the play on which Les Mis is based, or read the book by which the play was inspired. This screen adaptation obviously is heavily influenced by its theatrical source, yet the film finds a suitable balance between the theater and the cinema. Adapting musical theatre productions into movies may seem like a pointless exercise at times. Nonetheless, Les Miserables has about everything that one could want from a musical. There have only been a select few musicals of the past decade of cinema that can compete with the emotional experience that this one offers.