When those highly coveted gold statuettes are handed out in Hollywood on Sunday, Feb. 24, Oscar will be celebrating his 85th birthday. Of course the most eagerly anticipated award of the evening is the one for Best Picture, and this year “Les Miserables” seems to be a very safe bet to be one of the nominees in that category. Although it probably deserves to be among the films considered for the highest honor, it should not win.
During the 85-year history of the Academy Awards, nine musicals have won for Best Picture: “The Broadway Melody” (1929), “Going My Way” (1944), “An American in Paris” (1951), “Gigi” (1958), “West Side Story” (1961), “My Fair Lady” (1964), “The Sound of Music” (1965), “Oliver!” (1968), and “Chicago (2002).
Based upon Victor Hugo’s 1862 novel of the same name, “Les Miserables” has been brought to the silver screen at least 10 times throughout the years, but the 2012 version is adapted from the incredibly popular musical stage play, which opened on Oct. 8, 1985, at London’s Barbican Theatre, and it is thus the first musical rendition of the story to play on the big screen. To give you an idea of the play’s popularity, it became the longest-running musical in the world when it hit its 21st year in London in 2006, and more than 60 million people in 42 countries have seen it
Although the film version certainly has a number of things to recommend it, I believe it does not measure up to the aforementioned Oscar winners.
The story begins in 1815, when a convict named Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman), who was sent to prison for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his family, is paroled by a prison guard named Javert (Russell Crowe) after spending 19 years behind bars. The Bishop of Digne (Colm Wilkinson) kindly provides him with food and a place to stay, but Valjean repays his benefactor by stealing his silver and running off in the middle of the night.
It doesn’t take the police long to apprehend Valjean, but the Bishop says that he gave the former convict the silver, and the charges are dropped. Realizing that there is some goodness in the world, Valjean decides to make a new life for himself by changing his name and finding a respectable job. However, Javert refuses to believe that Valjean can go straight, and he dedicates himself to hunting him down and putting him back in prison.
The story moves ahead eight years, and by now Valjean owns a factory and is the mayor of Montreuil-sur-Mer. Fantine (Anne Hathaway) is a worker in the factory, but she gets into trouble when someone finds out that she has been sending money to Cosette (Isabelle Allen), her illegitimate daughter, who is living with some very undesirable people. Because Fantine has been trying to help out her daughter, she loses her job (Don’t ask me what she did that was so wrong.) and ultimately becomes a prostitute.
Through a series of event too long and complex to delineate here, Valjean ends up masquerading as Cosette’s (now played by Amanda Seyfried) father and devotes his life to raising her as his own child. From here the movie evolves into a love story between Cosette and Marius Pontmercy (Eddie Redmayne) set against the backdrop of the French Revolution, punctuated by the continuing animosity between Javert and Valjean.
“Les Miserables” is a through-sung film, meaning that it contains very few spoken words, and the filmmakers decided to have the cast members, all of whom do their own singing, perform the music live in front of the camera. Whereas Jackman and Hathaway are blessed with beautiful singing voices, Crowe, despite his background in musical theater, doesn’t embarrass himself, but he will never be a threat to Josh Grobin. Nevertheless Crowe turns in a very respectable performance.
Jackman, however, is the true star of this film, and he will be most deserving of the Oscar nomination for best actor that I’m certain he will receive. In addition to exhibiting his exceptional singing voice, Jackman makes us share in all of Valjean’s emotions throughout the movie. In the film’s production notes Jackman shared his thoughts about what he considers the best role he’s ever had.
“Valjean is one of the greatest literary characters of all time. You follow him for a 20-year span, having been released on parole as an ex-convict, to becoming mayor of a town, to becoming an outcast again. Throughout that time, you see all the ups and downs, the pain and the ecstasy that life brings. He is incredibly human, remarkably stoic and powerful and, ultimately, completely inspiring. His life is truly epic.
“Valjean is the recipient of one of the most beautiful and touching moments of grace from the bishop and, in the shame of that moment, he decides to mend his ways and dedicate his life and his soul to God and to being of service to the community. He is constantly striving to be a better person, to live up to what he thinks God wants from him.
“I’ve never had a role require more of me or take as much of a physical and emotional commitment. Valjean required everything I’ve done. All the things I’ve done leading up to this, whether it be on the stage or in film, I feel came together in this role. It’s the role of a lifetime.”
In addition some outstanding acting and singing, the film also boasts terrific costumes and superbly designed sets. These elements enable it to capture the look and spirit of the times perfectly.
But despite all it has going for it, I thought it moved very slowly in places, and I think anyone who is not familiar with Hugo’s story may become a little lost now and then. I also would have preferred a bit more speaking, and I found the running time of 157 minutes excessive.
Now please keep in mind that my evaluation is completely subjective because I am certain many will disagree with my saying that, for the most part, I didn’t care that much for the music. “My Fair Lady,” “West Side Story,” “Cabaret,” “The Sound of Music,” and other great musicals are filled with memorable songs that you want to hear again and again. The only really great number in this film is the beautiful “I Dreamed a Dream.” Aside from this one, I don’t care whether I ever hear any of the music from this film again, and I would never buy the soundtrack.
Thus, taking everything into consideration, “Les Mis” gets a final score of seven, and I will be very surprised if it wins the best-picture Oscar over “Lincoln,” or “Argo,” or “Django Unchained.” But if I’m wrong, I suppose you might say that I could not have made a less miserable prediction.