Movie reviews: Les Miserables

Adapted from the musical of the same name (which was itself adapted from Victor Hugo’s novel) and set in 19th century France, Les Miserables (12A) follows the fortunes of former convict Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) as he struggles to fulfil his destiny, despite being foiled by fate at every turn.

Epic in its sweep, the story sees Valjean drag himself up from his humble origins to become a successful businessman despite being pursued with maniacal zeal by the policeman Javert (Russell Crowe). On discovering the dying Fantine (Anne Hathaway), Valjean swears to raise the prostitute’s daughter Cosette (Amanda Seyfried), a decision that will cost them both dearly when revolution again sweeps through Paris. Directed by Tom Hooper, the film is an emotional rollercoaster, although those who aren’t fans of the musical genre may find that the singing of virtually all the dialogue has something of a distancing effect, particularly in the quieter moments. That said, most of the cast distinguish themselves in the vocal department, with Hathaway, Jackman and Seyfried in especially fine voice; Russell Crowe, on the other hand, offers little more than a lilting growl. The biggest difficulty the story faces in its transition from stage to screen, however, is its scope. The events of the story and the combination of a large cast and a booming collective voice may appear epic in the intimate environs of a theatre, but it all looks and sounds rather tinny and small on the big screen, while the story, which lurches from one manufactured crisis to another, seems to drag on for far longer than the 157-minute running time. Les Mis fans will probably love it; those who aren’t fans may be entertained by some strong performances.

Set in LA in the 1940s, Gangster Squad (15A) is the based-on-a-true-story tale of how an elite force of LAPD detectives, led by WWII veteran Sgt John O’Mara (Josh Brolin), took on the might of Mickey Cohen’s (Sean Penn) mob empire. Adapted from Paul Lieberman’s book of the same name, and directed by Ruben Fleischer, the film covers the same ground as LA Confidential (1997), as the cops adopt a ‘by any means necessary’ approach in order to combat the ruthless Cohen. Ordered to fight ‘a guerrilla war against an occupying force,’ by Chief Parker (Nick Nolte), O’Mara and his men are as enthusiastic as they are clumsy in their initial endeavours, but soon both sides are fully engaged in a “war for the soul of Los Angeles”. The frequent references to war and the self-questioning of the supposed good guys about the morality of their savage methods suggests that Fleischer envisages this story playing out on a bigger canvas than 1940’s LA, which may explain why he eschews realism for a lurid tale of casino robberies, jail breaks and nightclub shoot-’em-ups. The ensemble cast takes turns at gnawing chunks out of the scenery, their characters sustained by bravado and laconic quips, and while it’s all very entertaining on a superficial level there is a sense of missed opportunity. Fleisher’s vision of post-war LA is a glamorously hyper-real neon-lit city that ignores the squalid reality of its mean streets, while the story — with a little quick-change costuming — could easily have been a war movie, a western, or one of those superhero origins tales. Meanwhile, the truth of potentially fascinating people such as the real-life John O’Mara, Jerry Wooters and Grace Faraday gets drowned out by the monotonous rat-a-tat-tat of Tommy-gun fire.

Man on the Train (12A) is a real curio, being Mary McGuckian’s remake of Patrice Leconte’s 2002 film of the same name, in which an unnamed thief (Larry Mullen Jr of U2) arrives in a small American town with plans to rob its bank. Finding no place to stay, the thief is taken in by a retired poetry professor (Donald Sutherland), and the unlikely pair bond while the thief pursues his heist. Mullen is given a very difficult task on his acting debut, given that he’s acting against the veteran Sutherland and that his monosyllabic character is defined largely by silence and a menacing demeanour, but he grows into the role and eventually carves out a fascinating presence. Overall, however, the film is undermined by a lack of narrative tension and the fact that McGuckian maintains a pedestrian pace throughout.

Les Miserables ***

Gangster Squad ***

Man on the Train ***

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