Les Miserables Movie Review

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It’s impossible to fathom what eminent French writer Victor Hugo may have had in mind when likely mulling the impact of Les Miserables – considered one of the greatest novels of all time – on succeeding generations in the coming centuries down the line. But I’m guessing whatever he was thinking related to the future of his passionate tribute to the fate of the oppressed masses that figure in his work first published in 1862, in no way came anything close to predicting Hollywood multi-millionaires further enlarging their fortunes off the lavishly conceived poverty and torment of his characters in this screen musical.

And Les Miserables isn’t enhanced either by a kind of grotesque American Idol collection of performances in reverse, where the rich and famous of the celebrity movie world make a new and different debut ostentatiously breaking out into song rather than dialogue. In effect emphasizing once again style and extravagance over meaning in movies.

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Cinematic teaser poster, designed by Ignition Print.

Not that docudrama should be designed solely as a history lesson. But trimming the brash theatrics some to allow a bit of Hugo’s own contemporary take on raw truth rather than vicarious vintage poverty porn, might have been a nice touch. So what seems to be served up instead, is perhaps the equivalent of One Percent financiers taking time off to masquerade for fun as protesters over at an Occupy Wall Street demonstration.

The story takes place during the June Rebellion, also known as the Paris Uprising of 1832. The subsequently defeated insurrection was primarily led by students protesting the monarchy. It is against this backdrop that Hugo’s fictional characters emerge. Hugh Jackman is Jean Valjean, a fugitive convict arrested for stealing a loaf of bread, and then pursued for decades by the dreaded officer Javert (Russell Crowe) after he flees. Eventually Valjean takes it upon himself to care for the orphaned Cosette (Amanda Seyfreid), following the death of her destitute mother Fantine (Anne Hathaway) who is driven into prostitution.

And whatever tumultuous events arise as backdrop to this persistently sudsy scenario, are mostly incidental. And primarily taking a back seat to singing conversations that would have been better off being substantially spoken for maximum effect. Along with giant facial closeups that feel more like an audience detour into Gulliver’s Travels instead, as Lilliputians threatened at any moment with being swallowed whole by those gaping mouths on screen.

The final word on Les Miserables: Think charities that primarily enrich themselves by peddling poverty guilt, through pimping the mass misery of the destitute around the world. Okay, maybe not. But Les Miserables comes awfully close.

Universal Pictures

Rated PG-13

2 stars

To see the trailer of Les Miserables:

Prairie Miller is a New York multimedia journalist online, in print and radio, who reviews movies and conducts in-depth interviews. She can also be heard on WBAI/Pacifica National Radio Network’s Arts Express.