Oscar Preview: Les Misérables

When a story’s been told in as many ways as has Les Misérables, it’s fully impossible to isolate and discuss any one interpretation, separate from the others. Victor Hugo’s novel is, with little doubt, a transcendent masterpiece, the Romantic Manifesto, a study in every human emotion from remorse to contempt to ecstasy to hopelessness. The stage musical does well to capture a lot of that firepower in turning Hugo’s prose into a sweeping Broadway score.

It doesn’t take any mention of the musical’s unparalleled success to understand how much was riding on the musical film adaptation of Les Misérables. Director Tom Hooper had taken home both Oscars for Best Director and Best Picture. The cast featured Hollywood juggernauts like Hugh Jackman and Anne Hathaway. Producer Cameron Mackintosh and composer Claude-Michel Schönberg came directly from the musical itself. Never before did a movie have so much potential, such great odds of changing yet another medium forever with the story of Jean Valjean’s tragic search for redemption.

That potential is lost somewhere, heartbreakingly. To the credit of the musical, a few elements come out beautifully. Anne Hathaway’s short spell in the story will win her an acting award, if only for five minutes of “I Dreamed a Dream.” Other moments of the film, however, suffer from what can only be described as complacency. Hugh Jackman takes his role too far while Russell Crowe doesn’t take his far enough. The battle scenes, impossible to create in their entirety on stage, are peppered with bits of unpalatable melodrama at crucial moments. Characters’ deaths (there are many) feel robbed of any emotion except that of sadness in death; unrequited love and stolen childhood, indispensable themes in the novel that are touched upon in the musical, are distilled away as the movie contently coasts on the power associated with its source material. That it lacks this power itself is really no issue.

So much more can be said of what could have been. Still, if Les Misérables is named Best Picture, it won’t be as surprising as maybe it should be. It would be the first musical to win since Chicago, and the second since Oliver!. Still, even if defeated, the movie’s success will have a far-reaching impact on the future of movie-musicals. Should something great come because of this in the next few years, that’s redemption enough.