Tom Hooper doesn’t kid around. As a follow-up to his Oscar®-winning The King’s Speech, he could have played it safe and done another smart, funny period piece or a family drama – or any number of equally small independent films. Instead, he chose to adapt the hit musical Les Miserables to film – and, despite some pretty obvious flaws, did, indeed, create an uplifting Christmas release. In spite of those flaws, Les Miz is one of the best film-going experiences of the year.
It’s been decades since I read Victor Hugo’s 1200-page novel, but I do recall that, when I heard it was being turned into a stage musical my first reaction was, ‘Are they mad? Have they read the book? Everybody dies! Horribly!’ And, of course, the musical became a huge hit – and I suppose, an inevitable choice for adaptation to film.
In essence, Les Miserables is the tale of Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman), a man imprisoned for nineteen years for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his sister’s ailing son – and his pursuit by Inspector Javert (Russell Crowe) when he breaks his parole and takes on a new identity.
The details of how Valjean is able to finance a new identity – he steals from a church that has given him shelter and, when caught, the bishop of the church says he gave him the silver – set up his decision to try to live an upright life thereafter. In his new life, he becomes mayor of a small town where he owns a factory that employees dozens of otherwise destitute women.
Unfortunately, his foreman is a lecherous weasel who fires an uncooperative factory worker, Fantine (Anne Hathaway) while Valjean is trying to keep a newly arrived Javert from discovering who he is. As Valjean reveals himself through a selfless act to save another man’s life, Fantine sinks from merely poor to selling her hair and teeth to help support her daughter whom she has placed in the care of an innkeeper elsewhere.
Finally, after having been forced into prostitution and contracting tuberculosis, Fantine dies – but not before Valjean, realising that he has played a role in her demise, promises to care for her daughter, Cosette (Isabelle Allen). He rescues Cosette from the pernicious innkeeper (Sacha Baron Cohen) and his wife (Helena Bonham Carter) and the two flee to a new life in Paris – before Javert turns up yet again.
Such is the world of musicals that the now grown Cosette (Amanda Seyfried) falls in love with a young Parisian revolutionary named Marius (Eddie Redmayne) at first glance (and he with her), but are prevented from being together by another revolutionary, Eponine (Samantha Barks), the daughter of the innkeeper and his wife who, thankfully, is not the weasel that they are – though her love for Marius remains unrequited.
The majority of Les Miserables plays out against the June Revolution, as a group of university students try to lead a revolt against the corrupt government and the settings are both grand and depressing. When we do get a good look at the filth and squalor of Paris – at least the parts not inhabited by the wealthy (thus, most of the city) – we see how appalling the quality of life is for the majority of Parisians and completely understand why there was an attempted revolution.
Unfortunately, Hooper decides to film every soloist in pretty much the same way – circling the camera around them and then swooping in for varying degrees of close-up. The result is that we spend much of the film looking at giant faces. In terms of the camera allowing us to see the tiniest flickers of emotion – and amplifying the greatest – this is a device that works insofar as it reveals much of the characters inner life, but also produces an intensity that never varies. It’s as though Hooper has turned his amplifiers up to eleven – and left them there.
Still, the story is fascinating and the characters are definitely brought to life before us – and the sheer force of the talent involved is prodigious.
Jackman is superb as Valjean, but the biggest surprise is Crowe. His Javert is an unwavering, letter-of-the-law policeman who is absolutely relentless. We knew Jackman could sing – and that Crowe has fronted a rock band for decades, but his rough yet nuanced baritone works as the cop who rose from the gutters.
Other superb moments include the shattering I Dreamed a Dream and On My Own. Hathaway takes what has been seen (out of context) as a song of hope and turned it into what it was always meant to be: a cynical reappraisal of a life gone wrong through no fault of her own – a lament for the loss of the dreams of her youth. Because we have seen and heard Hathaway sing before, this performance – though award-worthy – isn’t quite the surprise it might otherwise have been.
Samantha Barks is the revelation here – On My Own details the depths to which she loves but is not loved and Barks (a Broadway star in her first movie role) nails it – and gives Eponine such presence throughout her time onscreen that even before her big number, we’ve seen into her heart.
Cohen and Carter, however, belong in some other movie. Their characters are both evil and slapstick and it’s not a combination that fits the tone of the film. In fact, while the technical precision of their performances can be admired separately, their appearances almost pulled me out of the story every time (thankfully, they aren’t given a lot of time onscreen).
Overall, though, in spite of its flaws, Les Miserables does one thing very well – it holds the audience’s emotions and attention. It has heart. And, with its reworked ending – that somehow feels right in spite of differing from the book (and the original play, I’m told) – does exactly what the ads promise: it gives its audience a shining ray of hope and uplift.
Hopper’s choice to have the actors singing during filming, rather than lip-synching to a pre-recorded soundtrack, gives such impact to the performances – even with his overuse of certain other filming choices – creates such a complete world that even with its flaws, Les Miz had me in the palm of its metaphoric hand throughout. Tears were shed. That’s all I’m saying.
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Photos by Laurie Sparham/Courtesy of Universal Pictures