The time is nigh! It’s been a long journey to the silver screen for Les Miserables. 27 years ago, the stage musical began running performances in London and Broadway to significant acclaim and massive staying power. Written by Claude Michel-Schonberg, Alain Boublil, and Herbert Kretzmer, and based on Victor Hugo’s classic novel (a book that’s literally longer than the Bible), it is often considered to be the greatest musical of all time. You can see why adapting it to the screen would be a challenge of unheard expectations. Following up his Oscar win for The King’s Speech, director Tom Hooper was who would eventually lead it there. Assembling together a talented eclectic cast, Les Mis would either rally others to its crusade, or leave them singing the song of angry men. In many ways, it’s considerably much different from the stage show itself, but is it for worse or for better? Well, why don't we take a look and find out?
Les Miserables chronicles the life of Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman), a man released on parole after nineteen years of imprisonment. After being taken in by a kindly priest, and treated with kindness that he’d never known before, he vows to change his ways by creating an honest life for himself. He changes his identity, and has not gone by the name of Valjean for eight years. This does not go unnoticed, as he is relentlessly pursued by his former warden, Inspector Javert (Russell Crowe, and we’ll get to him in a minute). It isn’t until later, after Valjean makes a vow to the dying Fantine (Anne Hathaway), that Javert is on to Valjean, swearing to send him back to prison.
Okay, forgive me if this goes on too long, but let me just single out Hathaway for a minute. Fantine has always been one of the highlights of the stage show, and she’s THE highlight of the movie. Fantine is the epitome of all the heartbreak that is to follow within Les Miserables. Hathaway looks physically devastated, all lending to the tragedy of this character. Some would argue that her only massively great moment is her rendition of “I Dreamed a Dream”, but there’s more to it than that. This is such an emotional and moving portrayal, unselfish, and unflinching. She may not be in it for very long, but she leaves a lasting impression, and even if it did all come down to that one scene, so what? That one scene is enough. I thought I knew the song pretty well, but listening to Hathaway sing, I suddenly heard it in a brand new light. Picture this if you will. I can watch many a movie stone faced without cracking. Here, I was crying and heartbroken until the next scene. All the devastation and the sorrow come out in such a big way that I can’t picture the person watching it without being moved. With any justice in the world, Hathaway will have the Academy Award sent to her by overnight mail. End of discussion!
Moving on. After Fantine succumbs to her illness, Valjean fulfills his vow to care for her daughter Cosette, taking her from the custody of the greedy town Innkeepers, The Thernadiers (Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter). Nine years later, a student rebellion against the oppressive law of Paris is beginning. One of the fighters is Marius (Eddie Redmayne), rallying with his fellow students and frightened townsfolk. By chance, Valjean is in town at that time, along with the grown Cosette (Amanda Seyfried). When Marius sees Cosette, it’s love at first sight, but what Marius doesn’t see is that his dear friend Eponine (Samantha Barks, a member of the 25th anniversary cast of the stage musical), is deeply in love with him, and is saddened that Marius does not return those feelings.
For a story with as many dense and complicated sub plots as Les Miserables, it’s a miracle that this movie turned out to be as coherent as it is. Since the film is a musical, the songs allow the film to get across more information than conventional dialogue, of which there is very little. As for the singing, I applaud the decision to go for all live singing rather than pre-recorded material. By allowing the actors to perform the songs live for every take, with hidden ear pieces to allow the actors to hear music on piano, the film adds much more realism to the situation, allowing the actors to focus more on their performance rather than worrying about keeping match with the pre-recorded music. Unlike the musical, it doesn’t necessarily sound “pretty”. There are some good voices here, but the singing here is much more gritty than what you’d hear out of the Broadway show, and that’s what makes the songs so effective, because they’re grounded to the grim tone.
As for the rest of the talent, I must mention Hugh Jackman. Jackman’s talents have long been underused in the industry, but here, he’s finally given the role that he deserves. Blending his strong physique with his incredible singing voice, he’s finally putting all his acting chops front and center, letting emotion pour from this character in a career best performance. Amanda Seyfried is serviceable as Cosette, who was always pretty stiff as a character anyway. Eddie Redmayne elevates Marius above the rushed standards of the stage version, and Samantha Barks hits hard in her rendition of “On My Own”, which has always been my favorite solo song of the show. Baron Cohen and Bonham Carter provide much of the riotous, desperately needed comic relief amidst the bleak nature of the rest of the film. Even Colm Wilkinson, who originated the role of Valjean in 1985, gets to make an appearance. Now, Russell Crowe must be mentioned. His voice may not be great, but like I said, no one’s voice here sounds “pretty”, so that’s fine. Pretty monotone, but Javert has always called for a bit of monotone. I won’t criticize him for his singing voice, but I will criticize his performance for bordering too close to robotic.
As for Hooper’s direction, I can’t think of many bad things to say, but not many great things either. I think criticism of his direction is blown considerably out of proportion, but none of it is without reason. He chooses some very odd, and at times distracting aesthetic and pacing choices, and the close close ups of the actors don’t do the fabulously designed sets and costumes much favors, but the design itself still manages to shine through. I still think the close ups do their job wonderfully, though. He may not have a unique visual voice, but his direction of the actors is as strong as one can hope for. By using his close ups, he captures every ache and every passion of the actors. Hooper’s direction is successful in that one regard, or at least a courageous misfire.
What do I think overall? Well, Les Miserables is about as good a film adaptation of a classic musical as possible. If for no other reason, it’s worth seeing for the new recordings of the classic musical score, one of the most perfect collection of compositions ever written, but there’s so much more than that. Even if you don’t like the movie, you can see that everyone involved with it were proud of what they were doing, and that they so wanted this to be a good movie. It is flawed, but beautiful, much like the musical it was based on. The musical took so many elements like revenge, redemption, romance, heartbreak, comedy, thrills, themes of inequality and strong religious beliefs, grand spectacle, and wove them all together into a very entertaining and incredibly moving tale, one of the rare products that deserves to be labeled with the word “masterpiece”. The movie itself doesn’t quite reach that same level of excellence, but for something as sweeping and beautiful as this, it’s as good a movie as anyone can hope for it to be. Leave no empty chairs or empty cinemas...
****1/2 / *****