Les Miserables – 3 Stars
Many of the greatest artistic works of all time were underappreciated or hated in their time, and such was the case with one of musical theater’s most popular works, Les Miserables, based on the gargantuan novel by Victor Hugo. Set in the French Revolution, it tells the story of an ex-convict who is struggling to make a better life for himself and his ward amist a changing tide. At times, it is a love story, a historical document, and a statement about human morality. It’s a touching story that was brought to life in the early 1980s by a team in France who adapted the novel as an operatic musical. Reviews were terrible, but over time, it grew to be one of the most successful shows of all-time. Even today, thirty years later, the show sells out crowds, and fans of the show long to portray one of the many iconic characters. This is the first film adaptation of the musical, and many will wonder how successful this was.
As one who has never seen the show, I got an interesting introduction to it. For one, I was unaware that the show was entirely sung-through, meaning that most of the dialogue was sung as well as the musical numbers. This took some getting used to, but before too long, it wasn’t bothersome. The first half of the film had very little steam outside of a number by Hugh Jackman and one by Anne Hathaway. By the end of the first hour, though, the film picks up enormous momentum that plows through the next nearly-two hours. The conclusion is heartwarming and satisfying, even if most of the film is terribly bleak.
Director Tom Hooper – whose most recent film The King’s Speech garnered him Oscars for Best Director and Best Picture – opted to record all of the songs live instead of in the studio to capture as much raw energy as possible. To further this, he frames most shots as very tight close-ups on the actor’s faces. Many have found this distracting, but this allows the audience to get even more attached and feel the emotions even more. After all, many of the songs are sung solo, so having large, spacious shots of someone on their own would really just leave a lot of empty space on screen. It’s a strangely effective technique that few other musical films have utilized (but more will in the future, I’m sure).
Most of the success of the film is thanks to the fantastic cast. Hugh Jackman and Anne Hathaway, who both received Oscar nominations for their roles, come apart at the seams and explode with humanity. Anne Hathaway, who only appears on screen for about twenty minutes, is almost guaranteed her Oscar. As the broken woman Fantine, she struggles to earn even a few francs to send to her sick daughter. The crowning moment of the film is Hathaway’s harrowing performance of the show’s most famous number, “I Dreamed a Dream.” With the camera zoomed in on her face, she belts out the heartbreaking tune with tear-soaked eyes until her voice cracks from the truth in her words. It’s one of the most touching moments in film this year, and it’s a role she will always be remembered for. Hugh Jackman comes to her side as reformed convict Jean Valjean, the hero of the story. Valjean spent nearly twenty years in prison for stealing a loaf of bread, and upon his release, he is determined to turn his life around by hiding his life as an ex-con. Valjean is one of musical theater’s most revered roles, and Jackman nails it perfectly. Especially in the final moments of the film, Jackman reveals a new side of himself as an actor. It’s often an unruly performance but one that resonates after the credits roll. Unfortunately, Russell Crowe provides a staggering amount of dead-weight as the unbearably static Inspector Javert, who hunts Valjean over many years. Javert is a lawman who does not believe in redemption. Despite Valjean’s towering moral standing, Javert is unwilling to accept that people can change. The character could have been so much more than it was, but neither his acting nor singing abilities were able to match anyone else in the cast.
All in all, a fan of the musical will find this to be an incredibly satisfying adaptation. One unfamiliar with the show may find the “sung-through” style of the film to be daunting and difficult to follow. In the hands of any other team, this could have been a miss, but it succeeds, albeit marginally. For me, I found it to be a satisfying but lacking experience and a good introduction to one of theater’s most enduring works.
Directed by Tom Hooper
Screenplay by William Nicholson
Based on the play by Claude-Michel Schoenberg and Alan Boubil, which was in turn based on a book by Victor Hugo.
Rated PG-13 for suggestive and sexual material, violence and thematic elements