Les Misérables is one of the most popular and longest running musicals of all time. In the DC area alone it has grossed over $53 million dollars in its numerous runs. On Broadway it has earned over $800 million dollars. Based on the Victor Hugo classic (At 1,400 pages it is one of the longest books ever written) it is a universal, moving and emotional story about redemption against all odds.
As an unabashed lover of live musicals, I’ve never been much a fan of Movie musicals. Simply putting a play on screen with cheap sets and bad lip syncing doesn’t do anything for me. A few weeks before the screening, the Live O2 Arena concert aired on PBS, then the musical came to DC and numerous soundtracks are available on Rhapsody, but I remained determined to see this as cold as possible. I walked in not knowing anything.
People who can’t get past the talking and then breaking out into random song thing should probably stay away. This is not the movie that will change your mind about the genre. My initial thought watching the first 40 minutes of this was “yep, for better or worse it is a musical.” There is very little spoken dialog in this movie. So it requires paying extra attention to the lyrics to really understand what is going on.
Hugh Jackman does an amazing job as Jean Valjean a prisoner who escapes after spending 19 years on a prison chain gang for stealing a loaf of bread. He is chased throughout his life by Inspector Javert (Russell Crowe). Every time his life gets on track, there’s Javert to remind him that he is an escaped convict.
Valjean’s life becomes an epic adventure, always staying several steps ahead of Javert while doing the right thing. At one point he becomes a factory owner and Mayor of a small town, there he encounters Fantine (Anne Hathaway) a former employee who becomes a prostitute to provide for her daughter Cosette (Amanda Seyfried). You can feel Valjean’s longing for redemption and understanding during “Who Am I.”
The first 45 minutes of this movie is kind of a mess. It is choppy, the music kind of terrible and nothing makes much sense. For example Valjean is supposed to be an escaped convict, but he doesn’t escape – he is pardoned. So I never understood why he was on the run in the first place. Eventually the story seems to reboot or start after a major moment (that I don’t want to spoil) occurs. Once it all clicks, it clicks in a big way. This musical’s power moments are just that – raw, unfiltered, full of emotion and far outweigh its many pitfalls. It is the only movie of the year to actually get me to cry like a baby. Poor Éponine, sniff…
Director Tom Hooper (the highly overrated King’s Speech) uses an surprisingly simple, but innovative technique to get around the lip syncing problem. Instead of dubbing in the voices during post production, he had the actors sing live on the set. Kind of amazing no one has done this before now. This gives the audience a truly intimate and close up feeling. Maybe a bit too much, as Hooper seems to be in love with this to the point where almost “every” shot seems to be some form of zoom in. Eventually watching nothing but lips and face gets a bit tired and annoying.
Not content to simply translate a popular musical to the big screen Hooper actually thinks cinematically first. Instead of simply filming a play, Hooper thinks of how everything translates from a cinematic standpoint and not necessarily from a musical standpoint. The opening sequence with Valjean and Javert on a ship is big, bold and beautiful. It does a great job of setting the tone for the movie.
He also changes the order of some songs and scenes, namely the famous “I Dreamed A Dream.” By placing it after Fantine becomes a prostitute the song has even more emotional resonance. Hathaway pours her entire soul into this one 4 minute sequence. I watched the live production a few days after seeing the movie and Hathaway’s stunning, revelatory moment was always in the back of my mind.
As good as Hathaway is, the less showier Samantha Barks as Éponine was brilliant. This is Barks’ first film, but not her first experience with the character. She played Éponine in London and for the 25th Anniversary concert. Her version of the classic “On My Own” was eye opening and its story of longing and unrequited love cuts like a knife. Other amazing moments included the the powerful call to arms with “Red and Black,” the rousing anthem “Do You Hear The People Sing,” and “One Day More.” It would make me very happy if she got an Oscar nomination or beat Hathaway for the supporting role.
The whimsical “Master of the House” performed by the evil Thenardier (Sacha Baron Cohen) and his wife, Madame Thenardier (Helena Bonham Carter) provided much comic relief. I would like to see Carter do a different type of part at some point in her career. Eddie Redmayne while not leading man material strikes the right balance as the idealistic Marius and does a nice job with classics like “Little Fall of Rain,” and “Empty Chairs/Empty Places.” As good as this cast is, I’m not convinced Crowe was right for Javert. His singing was perfectly acceptable but he didn’t look imposing or menacing.
While the subject matter is depressing, the movie is surprisingly uplifting and never sinks under its own weight. The fact that Jean Valjean went through all of this turmoil and still maintained his humanity and his desire for redemption is inspiring. You can’t help but leave the theater hopeful and even feeling a little bit better about mankind. There are numerous scenes that stay with you long after the final credits.
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