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Les Misérables: 2012 Film Review

the official poster for the 2024 theatrical re-release of the 2012 film Les Miserables

Les Misérables is an entertaining retelling of the stage musical that might not have aged perfectly, but still knows the strengths of this story.

When it comes to classic French literature, Victor Hugo’s “Les Misérables” is one of the texts that can’t be avoided. It’s an integral part of the country’s culture whose story perfectly captures the struggle, poverty, and resistance that so clearly characterised the history of the nation. The narrative is absolutely epic, spanning multiple decades and jumping across an enormous roster of characters – so when it was announced that Tom Hooper would be following up his Best Picture-winning The King’s Speech with a musical retelling of Les Misérables, expectations couldn’t have been higher. Luckily, Hooper managed to repeat his success with Les Misérables – it was another gigantic hit at the Oscars, made a huge profit at the box office, and essentially launched a whole new wave of movie musicals that continued into the 2010s.

Hooper’s Les Misérables sticks very close to the narrative of the stage musical, following an escaping convict named Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) on his journey through Revolutionary France as he attempts to raise his adopted daughter and escape from the steadfast Officer Javert (Russell Crowe). All the while, a bloody fight for freedom rages in the background that causes even more trouble for Valjean and causes Javert to come face to face with the consequences of his own loyalty to his country. The film’s biggest strengths, as expected from such a wildly successful musical, are the songs and the score. Not only are the lyrics catchy and the instrumentation filled with orchestral sounds, but each song serves a specific purpose. Whether that’s offering insight into a character’s mind or establishing a recurring motif throughout the film, the music is used excellently to enhance the story rather than merely being used for aesthetics.

However, much like with The King’s Speech, the many flaws and setbacks of Hooper’s film were seemingly swept away by the whirlwind of success that it was celebrating at the time. But with the benefit of twelve years of hindsight, during which plenty of better musicals have been released, Les Misérablesapproach to the ‘sung dialogue’ seems incredibly dated and unfitting for the big screen. This kind of storytelling, in which the characters sing their lines in moments of heightened emotion, doesn’t really work when everything else on the screen is trying to be as dramatic and realistic as possible.

This method works much better in the theatre, where the barrier between reality and fiction is already blurred by definition – audiences are much more aware that they’re watching something fictional, which is the entire draw of the art form. The main problem with Hooper’s film is that it tries so hard to maintain a sense of reality through its dark cinematography and immersive production design, but that makes all the singing (outside of the designated songs and choreographed set pieces) feel incredibly jarring. Of course, it doesn’t help that several of Les Misérables’ main characters are played by actors with little (or no) musical background, which leaves them feeling miscast and uncompelling. It’s for this reason that more recent movie musicals like West Side Story and In The Heights feel so much more engaging: musical theatre is a totally different world, and Hollywood actors aren’t always the best choice. 

Hugh Jackman puts a hand on Anne Hathaway's face in the film Les Misérables
Hugh Jackman and Anne Hathaway in the film Les Misérables (Universal)

That being said, one aspect of Les Misérables that’s actually aged surprisingly well is Tom Hooper’s cinematic direction. Perhaps the biggest advantage of cinema in contrast to theatre is the ability to create an entire world on-screen, as opposed to being limited to the physical space of a stage. Hooper capitalises on this fact with some brilliant production design and creative camera movements that fully realise the scope of this story, placing the audience directly in the middle of the action in a way that’s simply not possible on-stage. It’s one of the few legitimate arguments in favour of adapting this musical for the big screen – the film includes so much detail and environmental storytelling that adds new dynamics to this narrative.

Les Misérables might not be the best example of bringing a stage musical to the big screen, but there’s still plenty to celebrate about this huge accomplishment. There’s proof enough in the costumes, production design, and use of music that Tom Hooper understands the strengths of this story even if he’s not always capable of capitalising on them. Nobody is arguing that it’s better than the original book, or even better than the stage musical, but maybe there’s a place for this creative twist on a timeless story. Les Misérables has an enormous fanbase that means it’s still considered among the best movie musicals of the past few decades, but that begs the question: does a great story constitute a great movie, or were audiences too enamoured by the unquenchable spirit of this narrative to see the flaws of Hooper’s iteration? 

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A new remixed and remastered Dolby Atmos and Dolby Vision version of Les Misérables was released in cinemas in the UK & Ireland, Australia and New Zealand on February 14, 2024. The film will be playing in AMC Theatres in the US from February 23, for one week only. The film is also available to watch on digital and on demand.

Les Misérables: Trailer (Universal)
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