By Adam Bunch
Directed by: Tom Hooper
Starring: Hugh Jackman, Anne Hathaway, Russell Crowe, Amanda Seyfried, Eddie
Redmayne, Samantha Barks, Sacha Baron Cowen & Helena Bonham Carter
Les Miserables, directed by Tom Hopper tries a vastly different take on the 150 year old novel written by Victor Hugo. Though 14 movies have previously been done of the source material (including 2 made for TV), this version instead relies on the stage musical created by Claude-Michel Schonberg & Alain Boublil that debuted in Paris in 1980 before making its way to London’s West End in ’85 and then to Broadway in ’87. The choice to make a movie musical is not new especially in recent years as we have some stage to screen translations done quite well (Chicago), some that were accurate to the stage but translated poorly to screen (Rent), and some that came off downright poorly (Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Phantom of the Opera). What Hooper has created here though, should be considered a fantastic piece of cinema pulled directly from the stage, though it will not be everyone’s cup of tea.
With an opening scene that shows Hooper’s intent to deliver a grand spectacle, we find our protagonist Jean Valjean (an almost unrecognizable Hugh Jackman) at the bottom of a dry dock with his fellow prisoners hauling a ship into place. As the fanatical Inspector Javert (Crowe) stands on high the convicts sing the Overture “Look Down” a song of despair whose refrain is the backdrop to the entire story. Upon his parole, Valjean learns that he will forever be labeled a violent criminal, ensuring that even free he will be subject to a life of scorn, rejection and ridicule. Only after a saving moment from a kindly bishop (Colm Wilkinson who originated the Jean Valjean role on stage) does Valjean commit to living a life free from the chains that have been thrust upon him.
Years later living as a businessman and mayor of a small town, Valjean’s life finds new meaning when he crosses paths with Fantine (Hathaway), a woman who has been cast out of her job and thrown to the streets when it is found that she is the mother to a small child, Cosette who is being raised by a pair of corrupt innkeepers (Cohen & Carter). Downtrodden and now a lady of the night after already selling her hair then her teeth in a bid to keep paying for Cosette’s care she falls ill and is about to be arrested by Javier, before being rescued by Valjean who commits to raising her child as his own.
Living his life for a now grown Cosette (Seyfried) while constantly having to look over his shoulder for Javert, Valjean gets pulled into the streets of the Paris Uprising when he realizes he must protect the man his daughter loves, to complete the promise made to her mother and finally set himself free.
It should be noted that while this is a direct translation of the stage musical, it varies dramatically in the way that other musical movie adaptations have been done before. The songs here are all sung live during filming, the actors actually having to emote their dialogue through song, not recording them in a controlled studio environment months before. While they may not seem like a dramatic departure, let me assure you it is, both positively and negatively. For example: when we hear Valjean’s Soliloquy, “What Have I Done”, it begins so dramatically different then how it has been heard before that it is almost off-putting. However Jackman’s raw performance in the song, ending with him on his knees tears shed in front of an alter pledging a new life while utterly breaking down makes you feel the emotion coming through the song.
While Jackman as the lead has by far the most screen time, the rest of the cast definitely make the most with what they have. Samantha Barks as Eponine, daughter of the innkeepers has a fantastic presence and her rendition of “On My Own” is a beautifully shot scene of her wandering through the streets in the pouring rain, lamenting what might have been. Seyfried looks wonderful in the role of Cosette but her warbling voice can’t quite match up during her duet with Marius (Redmayne) who sounds as if he was plucked directly from a Broadway stage to perform his role. His solo effort in “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables” alone should reduce many to tears. Ensemble pieces such as “Look Down”, “Do You Hear the People Sing” & “One Day More” are captivating and the positive results of the live singing definitely shine through. Sacha-Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter, in what is supposed to be a much-needed break from the despair and provide a comedic interlude can’t quite find any footing as the crooked innkeepers Monsieur and Madame Thenardier. Their attempts at humor mostly come across as mean-spirited and fall flat instead of the slapstick break the audience needed.
While Jackman shines throughout, Russell Crowe is unfortunately out of his league as Inspector Javert. Don’t get me wrong, physically and acting wise he is a good (not great) choice for the officer who plagues Valjean’s life. Vocally though he is the weakest spot in the cast. He has some moments that are very well done, (Confrontation) but they are never when he has the screen to himself. When in fact he does get his moment to shine, in what should be a resounding boisterous song confirming the best of who Javert is, (Stars) it falls utterly flat. Crowe has proven himself to be a superb actor and has a nice enough voice, but seems unable to emote himself through song enough to fit in to this production. (Most of the time anyway)
The set pieces throughout the movie have a dirty, grime covered feel to them that truly fits the overall feel of the movie. However, when Hooper pans up and over certain scenes the CG sky shots don’t quite match what we are watching our characters trudge through in the lowly streets of Paris. Where the set design does work is during the battle on the streets of Paris. Using hidden cameras on actors as they built a barricade out of anything they could find in homes and businesses, you feel a part of the action until you are standing a top said barricade, staring down an Army. The final shot of the movie, which serves not only as a curtain call, but as a nod to the original production is so spot on, you feel you should stand and cheer when credits roll.
Now if there is there is one star that definitely deserves all the recognition they are garnering, it is Anne Hathaway. Her portrayal of Fantine is so well done that it is absolutely captivating and horrifying at the same time. Much has been said about Hathaway since she was first cast in the role, and many wondered if she had the vocal ability to pull off her character’s signature number “I Dreamed a Dream”. Let me tell you: the way that song was sung coupled with the way it was shot, in one continuous never-ending take in which the camera doesn’t move an inch, that number is absolutely chilling in its delivery. Hathaway brings a vulnerability and power to the character that should be heavily rewarded come award season.
I have heard many complaints that there is just plainly too much singing, and too complex of a story in Les Miserables for the majority of the movie going public to really enjoy. Well, Amigo’s I can’t buy that story and I won’t. If you hate the theatre or musicals in general then you already have no desire to go, and a movie that has been so well received will obviously get its share of contrarians who feel the need to slam it. But I think that what you have here is a triumph of a stage to screen translation that should have been impossible to pull off, but instead goes for the gusto in a grandiose way. Do You Hear the People Sing? Go see this movie & you will…..though be warned you may be singing too.
4 out of 5 – tissues should be included with the price of admission