The monotony of Les Misérables

12 January 2013

9:00 AM

12 January 2013

9:00 AM

Les Misérables

Nationwide, 12A

Les Misérables is one of the longest-running, most popular stage musicals in history, having been seen by 60 million people in 42 countries — sit on that, Cats! — and although I can’t comment on the live show, as I’ve never seen it, I can tell you this film, which comes in at around 140 hours, boils down to a lot of fuss and singing (of the jaw-straining variety) about a very minor parole offence. I’m telling you, if I’d ever Dreamed a Dream, whether In Time Gone By or In My Local Starbucks, that so many jaws would strain so much for so little, I’d feel completely satisfied, but otherwise? I’m not so sure.

Directed by Tom Hooper, with a stellar, A-list cast — sit on that, all other casts! — and based on Victor Hugo’s 1862 book, which runs to a billion pages or something, this opens with Jean Valjean (‘No,’ says his mother, ‘I did not consider naming him Sue Valsue’) being released from prison after serving 19 years for stealing a loaf of bread. Valjean is played by Hugh Jackman, whose straining jaw makes Pierce Brosnan’s straining jaw in Mamma Mia! look almost relaxed. Anyway, upon his release, the prison guard, Javert (Russell Crowe), orders him to carry papers identifying him as a dangerous person and orders him to report to parole officers regularly. However, having robbed a bishop, who forgives him, Valjean breaks parole and devotes himself to good, but Javert is determined to pursue him, although we are never told why. Does he have nothing better to do? Does he have any other work, even? Valjean’s already served 19 years, for heaven’s sake! Seriously, this is a two hour and 40 minute musical about the world’s most minor parole offence. Imagine if Valjean had stolen a loaf and a bun. We’d still all be in the cinema. I’d have grown a beard. At my age, this is a genuine worry.

The main thrust is Valjean vs Javert, the thin one from Wolverine vs the fatter one from Gladiator, although there are other characters, including Fantine (Anne Hathaway), a single mother who is forced to become a prostitute. (Women don’t come out of this particularly well, and generally expire in the arms of some man.) Still, Hathaway is the business. She can really sing. Her ‘I Dreamed a Dream’ with a blotched face and red eyes and spittle in the corners of her mouth and filmed as if she were Sinéad O’Connor doing ‘Nothing Compares 2 U’ is wonderful. The best thing in this film by miles. Pity she expires in a man’s arms early on. (SPOILER ALERT…oops, too late.)


Other characters include Cosette (Amanda Seyfried), the orphan adopted by Valjean, who grows up and falls in love with Marius (Eddie Redmayne), who is part of the group that sparks the 1832 Paris uprising. Nothing wrong with Cosette and Marius except that, between them, they don’t have an ounce of personality. Marius is also loved by Éponine (Samantha Barks), who expires in a man’s arms. I do rather like Eddie Redmayne, though. Just do. And he may be the only other one who can actually sing, too.

All the cast emote their heads off and sing their little hearts out live to camera (there is no dubbing) but there is something inert about the whole thing. It is visually repetitive. Hooper’s camera swoops from epic shot to facial close-up over and over and over. It is narratively repetitive. Javert only stops plodding after Valjean to sing about law and justice yet again. There is never any pause to build character or emotion and the music slurs together indefinably. Everything is sung, to the point where you want to stop it all and say, ‘Just talk, why don’t you?’ And everything is elemental. It’s love, betrayal, hate, fear, but never: ‘Oh, hello. How are you? Cup of tea?’ There is dark but no light, and no wit or humour at all. Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen do their shtick as small-time swindlers but it all feels wearily familiar, as if they’d been directly imported from Sweeney Todd. I was dying for Nancy to come in and do ‘Oom-Pah-Pah’ or something, and cheer us all up.

What I’m saying, I think, is that it’s just so soaringly monotonous. It might have been different on stage, where the business of staging something so epic would be more impressive, but I’ll never know. I cried, obviously, but that means diddly-squat. I cry at puppy and kitten videos. I cried when Rachel and Ross finally got together in Friends. It is never a recommendation. And although hard-core fans will love this whatever, and good luck to them, I’d rather set fire to my own hair than ever have to sit through it again. It would be over quicker, at least.

Readers who have not come across Deborah Ross’s film reviews before can find the rest here.

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Show comments
  • Lynn Barber

    brilliant – my own feeling exactly!

  • Curnonsky

    “Soaringly monotonous” – great line.

  • mumble

    Deborah Ross rocks. BIRM.

  • TWhitley

    Hmm, in my opinion, we pay for entertainment to have it make us cry (or smile, or be outraged, etc.). If it did that, it did it’s part of the bargain. If your brain felt left out, that sounds like your brain’s problem, not the show’s.

  • Tom Peter Bone

    straining for a criticism here I think. The film was truly epic.

  • Calum Reed

    “Imagine if Valjean had stolen a loaf and a bun. We’d still all be in the cinema. I’d have grown a beard. At my age, this is a genuine worry.”

    A brilliant observation and terrifying thought.

  • YogaGYE

    Ha ha ha, what an a***! I believe who has never seen Les Miserables musical should not be writing a review about the movie, since the movie is based on the musical. The only thing I agree, is that maybe to much close shots on the actors. The rest, is a great film, the scenography and clothes are superb. For me, is better the movie than the musical. In the theater, you are always too far, and the stage never is as perfect as what you can get in a film.

    • Calimie

      The movie should stand on its own. If you have to watch the musical first to get the movie, the movie has failed. Or did you read the book before watching the musical?

      • YogaGYE

        I’m not saying you need to watch the musical, what I’m saying, and maybe I failed to communicate, is that the author is complaining about that the whole movie is singed, but IT IS SUPPOSED to be singed, because is based on the musical, that’s why are exactly the same songs that have been written 30 years ago.

        • fantine

          You want the movie to be slightly burned?

  • PlayVic1

    PlayVic is an excellent free iPhone/iPad/iPod Quiz game played by answering general knowledge questions.

  • Thomas Rossetti

    I don’t think this review is very well written, but it’s enormously enjoyable, strangely. It’s the kind of thing a sixteen-year-old might write as homework. Poor old sir has to sift through pages and pages of boring Les Miserables reviews from the other hardworking students, but then he comes across this by the class wag Deborah Ross. This kind of thing won’t her into Cambridge, but, boy, has she brightened up his day!

    (This is supposed to be a compliment, kind of.)

  • LondonStatto

    Amazingly, Ms Ross thinks that the only bad thing in the film – Anne “top 5 overrated actress” Hathaway – is the only good thing.

    Did she see a different film?

    • therealguyfaux

      Anne Hathaway may not be the greatest actress in the world, but she certainly deserved better than the second-best bed.

  • Claire

    Never seen the stage show? But you describe it perfectly. I saw it more than 25 years ago and remember having to restrain myself from yelling out “Stop singing, for the love of all things cultured, just stop bloody singing!”
    Would rather poke myself in the eye with a sharp stick than go to the film.

  • Badly Done Emma

    I would never go and see a film unless Deborah said it was good. Hits the nail on the head every time for me.

  • jjolsen

    You don’t come across as being qualified to criticize this film. You are clearly unfamiliar with the source material, and evidently not part of the intended target audience. Perhaps you should go back to watching Friends.

    • Ridcully

      …and the award for most condescending remark of the week goes to…

  • Dogsnob

    I went to see it last weekend and managed the first twenty minutes and the last thirty. Had a lovely snooze the rest. The music I did hear, sounded to me as if the singers were making it up on the hoof – crazy lurchings from one melody to the next. I think it was that and the ridiculous, thin as piss, plot which swept me off to boboes

  • Daniel Clinkman

    Deborah, did you even attempt to engage with this film? With comments like “based on Victor Hugo’s 1862 book, which runs to a billion pages or something”, you come across as flip and ignorant.

  • Adam Schwartz

    Ms. Ross, will you marry me?

  • AY

    this “review” is simply a snobbish rant by someone who is clearly blind to the remarkable success of the crew to show and lighten everything we are losing today – as society is steadily filled by barbarism and tyranny. and they do it with technical brilliance and artistic sincerity, do it consciuosly, knowing that they defend civilized values.

    protection of females and children, morality lost and found, virtue of saving human lives and souls, elegance in danger, loyalty to comrades, duty, love, sacrifice.

    oh no we don’t see all that – we only care if our “review” is cynical enough to be appreciated by the same sort of lemmings. it looks like, British “les miserables” are degraded so hoplessly, that they have no more chance of redemption.