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An adaptation of the successful stage musical based on Victor Hugo's classic novel set in 19th-century France, in which a paroled prisoner named Jean Valjean seeks redemption.
For more about Les Misérables and the Les Misérables Blu-ray release, see Les Misérables Blu-ray Review published by Jeffrey Kauffman on March 7, 2013 where this Blu-ray release scored 4.0 out of 5.
Starring: Hugh Jackman, Anne Hathaway, Amanda Seyfried, Russell Crowe, Sacha Baron Cohen, Helena Bonham Carter
Director: Tom Hooper
» See full cast & crew
Les Misérables Blu-ray Review
Will you want to bring it home?
Reviewed by Jeffrey Kauffman, March 7, 2013
Hi. My name is Jeff and I love musicals. There, I've said it and there's no turning back, and if it means I'm a charter member of Musical Lovers Anonymous, so be it. I've joked for years that my father, who was a Major General in the United States Army, got a little concerned when my interests strayed from West Point to West Side Story when I was still a child, but I actually ended up a happily married man with kids (let's face it, my Dad's concern had nothing to do with musicals per se). I just happen to love musicals. This is evidently a love which skips a generation, for when I attempted to sit my own sons down to watch Oliver! one day, they both ran screaming from the room as if I had asked them to willingly submit to torture (which in their minds, it may well have been). I've been lucky to have conducted many musicals in my career as a musician, and there's no denying the rush that comes from a well knit combination of story and song, especially with great actors and singers (and instrument players) helping to, in the words of Stephen Sondheim, put it all together. Even those who love this particular genre have had to admit that film musicals have had a rather rocky road of it over the past several decades. The supposed "reboot" of the genre with Chicago in 2002 did not in fact usher in a grand new Golden Era of singing and dancing, and the few musicals that have appeared since the Kander and Ebb opus have met with decidedly mixed critical reactions. That trend seems to be continuing with the disparate responses to Les Misérables, despite the film's multiple Academy Award nominations (and eventual three wins, including Anne Hathaway as Best Supporting Actress). Have we simply become too jaded en masse to be able to suspend disbelief when a character suddenly lapses into song (and/or dance)? Or are there other issues which are endemic to the form that prevent it from being more readily enjoyed by the public at large? Les Misérables has been rather successful as far as film musicals go and some would argue it is one of the most thoughtful adaptations of a stage musical to the medium of film. But does that necessarily mean it's good, let alone great?
Aside from announcing my charter membership in Musical Lovers Anonymous, I also need to make a confession: I was wrong. When this feature film version of Les Misérables was announced on the Les Misérables in Concert: The 25th Anniversary Blu-ray in 2010, I warned fans not to hold their breaths for the trumpeted 2013 release. Knowing the gargantuan nature of this piece, I frankly doubted the ability of anyone to be able to marshal the forces necessary in time to meet that deadline. This only proves what dedicated creative crews are capable of (and in fact they beat that prediction by a year), for no matter what else you may say about the film of Les Misérables, it is in fact gargantuan in every sense of the word, teeming with thousands of extras, huge sets, and a hefty running time.
Are there many people who don't know at least the outlines of Les Misérables sprawling plot? Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) has been imprisoned for close to two decades in post-Revolutionary France for the heinous crime of stealing a loaf of bread to help feed his family. As the film starts, he's finally granted parole by the vicious Javert (Russell Crowe), though due to the laws of the time, he's forced to "wear a scarlet letter" of sorts, carrying around papers that identify him as a danger to society at large. Valjean finally finds some respite from a kindly bishop (Colm Wilkinson, who originated the role of Valjean on stage), though Valjean's darker tendencies initially seem to put him in danger of returning to prison. The Bishop's mentoring saves Valjean from himself and the story segues forward several years where Valjean has broken his parole and adopted a new identity to become a respected business owner as well as Mayor of a French village.
One of Javert's factory workers is a young woman named Fantine (Anne Hathaway) who is harboring a secret which gets her fired under Valjean's nose. That in turn leads the hapless girl into a life of prostitution. In the meantime Javert has shown up in Valjean's town and the obsessed official is convinced that the Mayor is in fact the long lost Valjean. These two competing storylines come to a head when Valjean rescues Fantine from her sordid existence and Javert reveals that a (completely innocent) man has been arrested as the long lost Valjean. Fantine dies, but not before Valjean promises to devote himself to her young daughter Cosette (Isabelle Allen as a child, Amanda Seyfreid as a young woman). Valjean's crisis of conscience also leads him to showing up at the trial of the innocent man and revealing that he, Valjean, is in fact the long lost "criminal".
Now, that might seem like enough for several films right there, but the fact is that doesn't even get you to the midway point of Les Misérables, which continues to unspool over years as the continuing battle between Valjean and Javert colors both of their lives, and Cosette's maturation includes a number of other tangential characters and plot points. This all unfolds within the context of France's roiling sociopolitical turmoil which found the oppressed underclass rising—again—to fight their horrible living conditions and the injustices that were regularly perpetrated against them.
There have been a large number of adaptations of Les Misérables through the years (and in fact I just recently reviewed the 1958 version starring Jean Gabin as Valjean), but this particular one had a built in anticipation factor due to the overwhelming success of the stage musical (for a little background on that story, I refer you to my Les Misérables in Concert: The 25th Anniversary Blu-ray review). Les Mis (as it's frequently referred to by its ardent fan base) is often lumped in (incorrectly in my not so humble opinion) with another gargantuan musical, The Phantom of the Opera, and those who were let down by that film adaptation might have approached this one with a fair degree of trepidation.
The fact is, there are both hugely compelling things about this film adaptation as well as some serious problems that even the most rabid Mis-head may have issues with. Hooper made the startling decision to have his cast sing live on set, which gives the film a rather visceral immediacy. (This was trumpeted as a revolutionary—no pun intended—approach, though real musical fans will know that Michael Ritchie did more or less exactly the same thing with his little seen or appreciated film version of the immensely popular Schmidt and Jones musical The Fantasticks.) When this gambit works—and it does quite a bit of the time—it's unforgettable, as in Anne Hathaway's incredible rendition of "I Dreamed a Dream", certainly one of the high points of this film and (some might argue) the entire history of cinematic musicals. But there are other times when the vocals aren't especially well done, including rather surprisingly by Jackman at times, who has an unflattering nasal quality in his upper register that almost makes him sound like Alvin (or one of the other Chipmunks). Crowe brings perhaps too much of a pop sensibility to his singing (he of course has his own rock band), and supporting players like Helena Bonham Carter and Sasha Baron Cohen (evidently thinking they're in a sequel to Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street) simply don't have the vocal chops to adequately deliver the semi-operatic music by Claude-Michel Schönberg.
As with the vocals, there are both pluses and minuses to the approach that director Tom Hooper (The King's Speech) adopts to transfer the venerable stage property to a new medium. The opening sequence shows what Hooper does best, namely opening up the film and investing it with a real sense of time and place. That includes a perhaps overly gritty ambience that some people will find distinctly at odds with the more typically glossy atmosphere that inhabits most film musicals. But Hooper also indulges himself in a bunch of arty effects rather similar to those he employed in his John Adams miniseries. These include lots of "shaky cam" up close and personal sequences and, even more oddly, a huge reliance on fish eye lenses which distort things and give several key sequences a quasi-hallucinatory ambience, something which is distinctly at odds with the obvious intent to give this Les Misérables an overriding feeling of absolute realism.
Perhaps the most ironic issue with Les Misérables is one which would seem at first blush to help ameliorate one of the big problems that a lot of people have with musicals, namely people just willy-nilly springing into song. As fans of the stage musical know, Les Mis is almost entirely through sung, with only a handful of spoken dialogue moments. That makes it of course much more in keeping with opera, but it also gives this film a strange stilted quality at times, especially in the so-called recitatives (i.e., quasi-dialogue moments which are sung, as opposed to out and out songs). That's especially noticeable when actors (including Jackman quite a bit of the time) adopt a sprechgesang approach, hovering somewhere half between speech and singing. What's especially ironic about this is that Tom Hooper reveals in his commentary that the first draft of the screenplay did in fact follow the older tradition of dialogue segueing into song, but that Hooper wanted the film to more closely resemble the stage musical.
The final issue with Les Misérables is one which probably couldn't be avoided. As with virtually every adaptation of this humongous piece of fiction, there are issues in depicting the vast panoply of characters as well as the immense passage of time. That second issue is especially true in this musical, where events are telescoped to make them readily part of any given song or sequence. What that means is, for example, Fantine's degradation into a life of prostitution seems to take place within seconds, and suddenly she's an emaciated, beaten woman, with no real context or emotional through line. It's even more of an issue with the central ongoing conflict between Valjean and Javert, for there's little feeling of decades flying by, other than on screen textual announcements that we're now in a new timeframe.
With everything delineated above, some may come to the conclusion that this is a failed adaptation, but on the whole, I'd actually argue otherwise. Hooper and his team have rather radically reinvented the property for film, including some very smart editing decisions that give new life to several key songs (fans may be upset, however, by another kind of editing, namely missing sequences and pieces of songs). And despite some qualms with the vocals, there's a uniform excellence to the actual performances that gives this Les Misérables an emotional heft, especially as it careens towards its simultaneously tragic and uplifting conclusion. The hopes were so high for this film that meeting (let alone exceeding) them was probably a pretty hopeless task to begin with, but there is a lot to admire about this film. It may indeed not be great, but it is good, and I would argue it is at times very good indeed.
(For those with a sense of humor about musicals in general and Les Misérables in particular, I highly recommend spending ten minutes or so listening to the delicious Forbidden Broadway parody of the show which is available on YouTube here.)
Les Misérables Blu-ray, Video Quality
Les Misérables is presented on Blu-ray courtesy of Universal Studios with an AVC encoded 1080p transfer in 1.85:1. Hooper and his frequent collaborator cinematographer Danny Cohen favor a gritty, and quite often dark, ambience for this film, as is quite evident from many of the screenshots accompanying this review. In fact there's a slow but steady evolution from darkness to light in the film, obviously done intentionally. That means the first part of this film often has a murky, ill defined ambience, though it's to the credit of this high definition presentation that fine detail and shadow detail still remain commendable almost all of the time. Close-ups in fact often offer a staggering amount of fine detail, an aspect which only improves once the film moves into brighter territory. The first half or so of the film has been color graded fairly aggressively toward the blue end of the spectrum, with the second half imbued with more of a golden amber hue. With a relative paucity of supplemental features, the film's two and half hour plus running time rests rather comfortably on a BD-50, so there really are no egregious compression artifacts to report.
Les Misérables Blu-ray, Audio Quality
Les Misérables' lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 track offers the film's score and occasional dialogue with sterling fidelity and consistent surround activity. One of the best things about this film is the incredibly smart mixing of ambient environmental sounds with the continuing underscore and vocals. This can be rather subtle at times, as with the crash of waves in the opening sequence, or more immediate and apparent, as in the huge barricade sequence. Even the sung elements feature discrete channelization which open the film up aurally and present a well defined sense of space within the frame. My only niggling qualm (and it's relatively minor) is that occasionally the singers are hard to understand (especially with regard to Bonham Carter and Baron Cohen), and sometimes the orchestral masses slightly overwhelm them. Other than that, though, this is reference quality audio that offers this incredibly popular score with beautiful fidelity.
Les Misérables Blu-ray, Special Features and Extras
Les Misérables Blu-ray, Overall Score and Recommendation
I know a lot of professional theater people, including several who did different national tours of Les Misérables (some in major roles), and their reaction has been about as disparate as the public at large. Some of these people absolutely love this film adaptation while others absolutely despise it. My personal reaction falls somewhere in the middle, with at least a tilt toward the favorable. I am not a fan of "shaky cam", especially in musicals, and Hooper's repeated use of fish eye lenses is just plain odd. The film also rather uneasily manages its quasi-operatic roots, and while its through sung approach is commendable, that doesn't necessarily mean it works as a film. On the other hand, the film has an epic sweep and an undeniable emotional heft that can't be denied. The performances are uniformly excellent and few will be able to ever forget Hathaway's commanding one take performance of "I Dreamed a Dream". Les Misérables may still work better on stage, but this film is a rather valiant attempt to reinvent the property for a different medium. Does it completely succeed? No, but like the rabble who join Jean Valjean in a struggle for justice, the mere fact that it tries is worthy of admiration. This Blu-ray offers superior video and impeccable audio and comes Recommended.
Les Misérables: Other Editions
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Les Misérables Blu-ray, News and Updates
• Exclusive Giveaway: Les Misérables - March 12, 2013
Blu-ray.com and Universal Studios Home Entertainment are offering five members an opportunity to win a copy of director Tom Hooper's Les Misérables (2012). Nominated for eight Academy Awards, the innovative adaptation of Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg's ...
• Les Misérables Blu-ray Detailed - February 12, 2013
Universal Studios Home Entertainment has officially announced and detailed the Blu-ray/DVD/UltraViolet Combo Pack release of director Tom Hooper's Les Misérables (2012). Nominated for eight Academy Awards, the innovative adaptation of Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel ...
• Les Misérables Available for Pre-Order - January 16, 2013
Nominated for Best Picture and a host of Academy Awards, director Tom Hooper's Les Misérables is now available for pre-order. Universal has yet to announce a street date or reveal details about the upcoming Blu-ray release.
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