After a quarter of a century in development, the big-screen version of the Broadway musical Les Misérables is finally here. Will it sweep away audiences like the stage show? Put it this way, at a screening I attended I overheard two women discussing how they’d worn waterproof eye makeup to prepare for the inevitable deluge of tears.
The musical film, which is sung virtually all the way through like an opera, is directed by Britain’s Tom Hooper, who won an Oscar for The King’s Speech just two years ago. If Les Mis wins Best Picture, as seems possible given the sweep and majesty of the story, Hooper would match Francis Ford Coppola’s feat of winning the top prize twice in three years.
Hooper makes sure all of his actors give big, bold performances; playing things subtle is not the way to approach this epic, two hour and 40 minute story about freedom, love, sin, redemption, justice, poverty and revolution. Hugh Jackman leads the cast and does great work as Jean Valjean, the prisoner who, when paroled, initially falls back into his thieving ways but then after an encounter with a kindly bishop he has robbed resolves to start his life anew. Under an assumed identity, he rises to the rank of mayor of a French town and becomes wealthy as a factory owner.
By failing to keep up with the terms of his parole, though, Valjean makes himself a fugitive who is endlessly pursued by the tireless policeman Javert, played by Russell Crowe. Both Jackman and Crowe have been singing professionally for years (Jackman is experienced in musical theater, while Crowe fronted a rock band back in Australia). But Jackman’s rich baritone voice is better suited to this Broadway piece than Crowe’s surprisingly light and reedy tenor, which sounds nothing like his husky speaking voice.