PG Cooper and Moviebuff801: Les Miserables Review

Posted: January 1, 2013 by Daniel Simpson (PG Cooper) in Conversations


PG Cooper: Since Moviebuff and I each had distinctly different reactions to Les Miserables, we thought it would be fun to work together on a review. The general format will be similar to how Siskel and Ebert formatted their reviews on their TV program. We’ll provide some background information, a plot synopsis, reveal our opinions, and then debate the merits back and forth.

In 2010, a film called The King’s Speech opened to warm reception from both critics and audiences and went on to become a sizeable hit. People loved it and the film was showered with Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Director for relative newcomer Tom Hooper. The film put Hooper on the map and led to his next work being hotly anticipated. That, coupled with the great cast and the awards consideration has given Hooper’s Les Miserables a lot to live up to.

Moviebuff801: An adaptation of Victor Hugo’s novel, as well as the enormously popular Broadway musical that it spawned, Les Miserables is perhaps one of the most high-profile and eagerly-anticipated films of the Holiday Season.  It stars Hugh Jackman as Jean Valjean, a man who was imprisoned for stealing a loaf of bread and served a nineteen-year sentence for it.  Released on parole by prison guard Javert (Russell Crowe), Valjean decides to create a new life for himself, but consequently skips his parole in the process.  Flash forward to France, eight years later, where Valjean has created a new identity for himself while also becoming mayor of Montreuil-sur-Mer.  One day, he crosses paths with factory worker Fantine (Anne Hathaway), who, in addition to just being kicked out of her job, has a young girl named Cosette to provide for.  Fantine does this by becoming a prostitute to earn money, but tragic circumstances force Valjean to become Cosette’s new care-giver instead.  Meanwhile, Javert, now an Inspector, has re-entered the picture, hellbent on capturing Valjean.  Then, flash forward ANOTHER nine years, where young adult Marius (Eddie Redmayne), a fervent supporter of a brewing revolution against the French government, has just caught the eye of the now grown-up Cosette (Amanda Seyfried) and decides to try and capture her heart as well.  Meanwhile, Valjean and Javert are still continuing their game of cat-and-mouse amidst the Revolution.

PG Cooper: On the whole, there are a lot of elements worthy of admiration. There’s some great acting, particularly Hugh Jackman and Anne Hathaway who deserve awards consideration and I like that Hooper stretched his visual style even if he still has a lot to learn. But at the same time, I ultimately am left cold by the film. It feels like it’s rushing through to pack as much of the story into the film as possible and as I result I could’t connect with the material. Not a bad film really, but not one I can recommend either.

Moviebuff801: Well, right there, I have to respectfully disagree with you about the lack of emotional resonance.  I thought there were plenty genuinely moving moments throughout the film, all of them a result of the strength of the performances coupled with the way the songs are sung, which in itself is a very intimate and emotional fashion.  Whereas you seem to feel like the film was rushed, I think it was very well-paced for a 2 1/2-hour film.  Now, that said, I DO happen to agree with you on Jackman, Hathaway and Hooper.  All of them bring their A-game here, and it definitely shows.  Jackman in particular gives his best performance so far, and what Hathaway does with such limited screen time is nothing short of amazing.

PG Cooper: I will agree that there were moments of emotional resonance, several in fact. I’d also say Hathaway’s rendition of “I Dreamed a Dream” is one of the most moving scenes on film this year. I just never felt all the scenes come together to form a moving narrative. Also, speaking of the pacing, Les Miserables is one of the most paradoxical films I’ve seen recently in that I find it too short and too long. Too short in that not enough time is given for the ideas and stories to be fully developed, and too long in that because I didn’t care I found myself bored for large stretches. Since we do agree on Jackman and Hathaway, how did you feel about the rest of the cast?

Moviebuff801: Starting with Russell Crowe, it took me a while to warm up to his performance, much in the same way it felt like Crowe himself took some time to really feel comfortable with all the singing; in essence, I grew to like his performance more as th film went on.  I think he really started hitting his stride during his big musical number, “Stars.”  Eddie Redmayne did just fine, I thought, as he got me involved in the more important parts of his character’s journey.  In terms of the minor characters, I was most impressed by Samantha Barks.  Maybe it’s because she’s played the very same role on stage, but she clearly had a tight grasp on her character, and “On My Own” is probably one of my favorite songs from the film.  Amanda Seyfried…she was good, but at the same time, I thought she could’ve been better.  And as for Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter, they get their job done, which is to provide comic relief, but really, they’re just playing variations of a few of their past characters.  All in all, I’d say the cast was solid, but Jackman and Hathaway clearly come out on top.  Now, what about the songs?  Were there any that stood out to you?  “I Dreamed A Dream” is fantastically-done, and I love how it’s all done as one shot, but the film also has a few other stand-outs.  What say you?

PG Cooper: Like you, it took me time to warm to Crowe. I don’t think he’s a particularly strong singer, but he’s a damn good actor, and it helps him to overcome his vocal limitations. I liked Redmayne well enough, and that’s saying something considering I strongly disliked him in My Week with Marilyn. I liked Barks and Seyfried fine, but I should point out that their love triangle was the film’s weakest story. Most of the subplots I saw potential in even if I didn’t respond to them personally, but there story just seemed lame. Of course I’m never a fan of the old “I saw her across the room and knew she was the one” type romance. You’re spot on about Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen. Carter especially looked like she came right off the set of Sweeney Todd. Personally I could have done without their comedic relief. Didn’t match the drama.

 As for stand out songs. Well, “I Dreamed A Dream” is the obvious answer everyone says, but it deserves to be. Besides that, I thought “Look Down”, “Valjean’s Soliloquy”, “Lovely Ladies”, “Who am I”, and “The Confrontation” all stood out.
Moviebuff801: I make no illusions about the fact that I’m a romantic at heart, so the love triangle subplot didn’t bother me as much as it did you.  Maybe that also explains my liking of “On My Own.”  And yeah, I should mention that pretty much every time Bonham Carter was on-screen, I kept thinking, “Hey!  It’s Mrs. Lovett!”  But I’ll step up to the bat for the comic relief and say that when you have as solemn a story as Les Miserables, then you need a good laugh every now and then.  And hey, at least the comedic stuff was there in the right doses, and never threatened to overpower the drama.

Speaking of, one song I particularly enjoyed was “Master of the House,” which is probably the most well-known song from this story.  Also, I genuinely feel like Russell Crowe deserves credit for pulling off “Stars” so well, and then there’s the rousing “One Day More” and “Do You Hear The People Sing?” whenever it pops up in the Second and Third Act.  I also liked how this film is very much operatic in nature, with barely a regularly-spoken line of dialogue.  At first, I feared this would wear thin, but to my delight, this helped the film flow more smoothly, if you ask me.
But, one thing you’ve pointed out as a criticism is something I feel I must defend.  You said the film never really delves that deep into any of its storylines.  Well, that’s kind of the nature of the beast when it comes to musicals.  These kinds of films rely more on the songs to communicate its more important messages and such, and from that point of view, I think Les Miserablessucceeds.  And through the singing and the subsequent expressions of the characters’ emotions, that’s how I came to be invested so much in this movie, and why I found the end in particular to be pretty powerful.
PG Cooper: I suppose I can see why that would work for you. And I’m not inherently against comedic relief in the film, I just felt there were times when those characters appearances felt out of place. At any rate, I am glad the film worked as well for you as it did. It is possible that musicals just aren’t for me given my own exposure to the genre is limited (I’ve probably seen under ten).

So I feel like if we don’t move on soon, we’ll just start throwing the same points at each other. I know you saw Hooper’s last film, The King’s Speech. What were your thoughts on that, how has Hooper evolved as a director, and what do you see for him in the future?
Moviebuff801:  Before I answer your question about Hooper, let me just say this: I’m not THAT big on musicals either, but found that this one just clicked for me.

This can relate to Hooper, though.  In terms of The King’s Speech, I enjoyed it quite a bit.  Would I have given it Best Picture, though, over movies like Inception and Black Swan (my Top Two films of 2010)?  No.  The King’s Speech, while good, was still very much a … I guess you could say “bare bones” movie, and that can apply to Hooper’s direction in that film as well.  I definitely feel as if he’s evolved as a filmmaker, based on Les Miserables.  His sense of scope has certainly expanded, and he’s starting to show us he can handle bigger productions (I particularly liked the single sweeping shot he opens the movie with).  But his trademark “have the actor at the edge of a frame with a bunch of negative space behind them” type of shots are still here, however he pulls back a bit more on them this time.  At the very least, I hope to see him continue to expand his horizons as a director.  And based on his first two major films, a small British character drama and a lavish musical, he seems set on not doing the same thing over again, but it’s still early, so we’ll see.
PG Cooper: I enjoyed The King’s Speech for what it was, but I ultimately found it, as you said, bare bones and unambitious. Hooper showed no visual sensibilities really. With Les Miserables, I respect that went out of his way to try and do more visually. The production design for example, is phenomenal, and the costumes great too There’s also some great shots. That said, I do think he encountered some hiccups along the way. For one, the sterile computer generated backgrounds clash with the realistic sets and there are times where the camera shakes too much. He clearly needs to tighten these issues up, but I’m glad as taking steps to becoming a more competent visual story teller.

That said, I feel like Les Miserables reveals his limitations as a story teller. He did a competent job with The King’s Speech, but given the simplistic story, it’s easy to see why. But when handling the larger and more epic story of Les Miserables, Hooper floundered. Now I know you and I disagree on that, but that’s how I felt. Ultimately, I’m interested to see where Hooper goes next. I’m not excited, but I’m curious to see if he’ll fix his short comings in the future.
Moviebuff801: DID the camera shake a lot?  There were CGI-ed backgrounds?  I honestly didn’t notice, seeing as how I was so caught up in the story.  And I think THAT’S a mark of how good of a storyteller in general Hooper is.  I really don’t mind any shortcomings he may have from a visual standpoint, as long as he can hook me with the story and characters, first and foremost; he did that with this film.  Interestingly enough, I think I might compare what Hooper did with this film with what Tim Burton did with Sweeney Todd, and that’s give a musical a very interesting look in its own right.  Overall, I’d say I liked Les Miserablesmore than The King’s Speech, but I get the feeling that it’s the other way around with you.
PG Cooper: Yeah, I like The King’s Speech a lot more, which is amusing because I was one of the loudest voices of protest when it won Best Picture over a plethora of films I prefer. I’d also argue that Hooper has been lucky enough to work with extremely talented actors that are able to draw the audience in to the point that even when his direction isn’t top-notch the performances are still great. I like the comparison you drew to Sweeney Todd and I felt that as well. Not only in the casting choices, but I get the sense that Hooper either watched Todd for inspiration or subconsciously drew on it.

As far as not noticing the camera shaking and the CGI, I should mention these weren’t excessive problems, just small things I noticed.
Moviebuff801: What I find interesting here is that Les Miserables and Sweeney Todd are the two musicals that I can say I love, along with probably being my favorites, and as we just pointed out, there are a few similarities between the two.  Both create very distinctive visual worlds and assemble big-name casts to compensate for any story issues, and in both cases, that didn’t matter all that much to me since the end product was so strong.  Of course, for people like you, it may be more of an issue.  But this is curious, maybe there’s something about musicals set in the 1800’s that speaks to me.
PG Cooper: Maybe. For what it’s worth, I did really like Sweeney Todd. I had some issues, but ultimately found it a pretty cool movie. And I don’t hate Les Miserables. I respect it a lot, but I couldn’t click with it.
Moviebuff801: And I can respect both of those opinions myself.  Musicals certainly aren’t everyone’s cup of tea.  But for me, personally, I’m still surprised at how much this one worked for me.  Like you said, Tom Hooper is clearly trying his best to give us something worthwhile, and my opinion is that he pulled it off.  One other thing he did so well with Les Miserables is that he managed to create and sustain a very strong atmosphere, and that’s an element of a movie I especially enjoy whenever it’s done right.  Even now, a few days after having seen it, there are a lot of things about the movie that have stuck with me.
PG Cooper: The atmosphere was quite strong. You mention the movie sticking with you and it hasn’t really for me, though that might be in part because I’ve seen four or five films between when I saw Les Miserables and now. How does Les Miserables rank among the rest of 2012 for you?
Moviebuff801: I’d definitely put it in my Top Ten for 2012.  Right now, it’s among my Top Five, even.  I’ve still yet to see films like Django Unchained and Zero Dark Thirty, but even if those live up to all the hype for me, I’m still confident that Les Miserables will hold a slot on my Best of the Year list when all is said and done.  From the songs, to the performances, the production design and its emotional punch, Les Miserables is a movie that basks in everything that makes it so gloriously dramatic, and translates it into a film that may be obvious in how it’s pining for an Oscar, but I’m okay with that, in this movie’s case.
PG Cooper: As a whole, Les Miserables will not rank among my favourites of the year. It’s closer to the lower-middle. That said, certain elements are among the best of the year. Anne Hathaway is guaranteed to receive a Best Supporting Actress nomination from my own personal awards, and the production design will likely be nominated as well. And while I don’t know if I have Jackman’s performance locked in for a nomination, he’s certainly in the running. It’s also the best musical I’ve seen all year. Granted, it’s the only musical I’ve seen all year, but that helps it stand out if nothing else.
So that wraps up our review. We seem to admire the same things just to different extents. Thanks to everyone who read. If enough people liked this, we may do more joint reviews in the future.
PG Cooper’s Score: C-
Moviebuff801’s Score: ****/****
  1. I think it needs a higher grade than a C-, but I definitely side more with PG on this one. It’s kind of dividing people… those who like it think its really great, but there are plenty of us out there who think its falls short.

    I think EVERYONE agrees that Jackman and Hathaway were great though, LOL :D

  2. r361n4 says:

    Definitely some strong points on both sides, I completely agree that the romantic subplot was the weakest and least developed aspect of the movie and on top of that I’m not the hugest fan of musicals. That being said I loved Hathaway, Jackman and Barks and was very impressed by the setpieces and direction of the entire thing.

    Also totally agree about the Mrs. Lovett note, I couldn’t separate the two characters either, lol

  3. moviebuff801 says:

    I’m honestly not that surprised that the general recption for this film is very divided. It’s usually the case with most movie musicals, it seems.

  4. Mark Hobin says:

    I’d have to say I’m with Moviebuff801 on this one. Emotionally this fit the bill. I loved it.

  5. vinnieh says:

    Enjoyed reading this joint review, I recently reviewed it on my blog if you’re interested.

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