Les Misérables is an achievement, the cinematic realization that fans have waited almost 3 decades. The stage musical is a global sensation. It opened in London on October 1985 and has run continuously since. The Broadway rendition debuted 2 years after the West End debut and became the fourth longest-running show in U.S. history. The road from stage to screen has been a long journey with a storied development beginning in the late 1980s. It’s safe to say expectations were very high. Under the direction of Tom Hooper, the production is realized as a thrilling success, with minor caveats.
It is the story of Jean Valjean, a peasant who serves 19 years in jail for having stolen a loaf of bread for his starving family. He’s prisoner 24601! With the blessing of a sympathetic Bishop, Valjean breaks parole to start a new life as an honest man. He makes good on his promise and becomes a benevolent factory owner and mayor full of kindness and understanding. Unfortunately he is still relentlessly pursued by police inspector Javert who is beholden to the law. We’re also introduced to a large company of various individuals all set against the backdrop of the French Revolution .
In any drama with a large ensemble, there is a danger that the production can become cumbersome or scattered as more individuals begin to pop up. What impresses is that director Tom Hooper deftly handles the large ensemble of actors giving us an intimacy with each one that benefits their character and our sentimental attachment to each story. He makes the questionable decision to film the singing live ostensibly to make the story’s emotional component more of the moment. There’s definitely an immediacy to the proceedings, but at times the vocals suffer. The time-honored movie musicals have always relied on the perfect take. As this is a movie musical and not being performed on stage, why not take advantage of that fact. Wouldn’t it have been smarter to studio record and enhance the clarity of the vocals? Nothing against Anne Hathaway’s stunning portrayal of Fantine, but when she’s sobbing uncontrollably all throughout the famous number, ‘I Dreamed a Dream’ it really is a bit of a buzzkill. I usually tear up every time I hear that majestic song with it’s high notes and sweeping strings. Yet when she sang it, I didn’t. As a performance she’s incredible, however.
And speaking of performances, Hugh Jackman is quite simply extraordinary. Rarely have I seen an actor combine the vocal chops with acting ability to create a moving achievement that is among the most accomplished in film musical history. What’s so extraordinary is that he finds a vibrancy that immediately draws you into his story as if you’ve known him all your life. Russell Crowe isn’t anywhere close to his match as Javert, his nemesis, but he does provide a counterpoint to Jean Valjean. I’ve seen the play twice performed on the stage, in 1990 and again this year 2012. I understood Crowe’s character arc better in this production than I ever have before. What he lacks in vocal strength, he more than makes up for in raw emotion.
They’re skillfully energized by a strong supporting cast. There’s much too many parts to detail individually, but I should mention Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen who provide wonderful comic relief as corrupt innkeepers The Thenardiers. Aaron Tveit as Enjolras, the student revolutionary, whose vocals are just as powerful as they need to me. And I most assuredly must highlight Eddie Redmayne as Marius and Samantha Barks as Éponine. Éponine’s unrequited love for Marius is surprisingly one of the narrative’s most affecting moments. Her song ‘On My Own’ was a floodgate of emotion for me. The ‘In My Life/A Heart Full Of Love’ is another high point, both of them singing along with Amanda Seyfried as Cosette, the harmony of their voices overlapping like some heavenly trio. Their hymn, one of love discovered, the other of love lost, is heartbreaking.
Les Misérables isn’t perfect, but it’s an absolute joy to anyone who’s a fan of Hollywood cinema on a lofty scale. And why shouldn’t it be grand? The chronicle is based on the 1862 novel by Victor Hugo. Perhaps because it feels as if the musical has always been with us, it’s difficult to imagine a time when adapting the somber tome of French literature into a musical was actually a radical concept. This is rather depressing stuff but in the hands of director Tom Hooper, it is an emotionally involving, monumental saga in the timeless tradition of classic movie musicals. The story is sweeping, the vocals are (mostly) impressive and the lavish production is a marvel – the kind Hollywood was known for in the 40s and 50s. I love that this version made me see things I never noticed before. Les Misérables is paean to the beauty and romance of Victor Hugo’s well known French tale and indeed of grand filmmaking at its most epic.