Both performances are eclipsed by Anne Hathaway, who is on screen for only a short period as Fantine, a poor worker at Valjean’s factory who turns to selling her hair and prostitution to support her daughter Cosette (the little girl whose face became the logo of the Broadway show). Hathaway gets to sing the most famous number in the piece, “I Dreamed a Dream,” and it’s a show stopper to rival “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going,” which won Jennifer Hudson an Oscar for Dreamgirls six years ago. You can pencil in Hathaway for the Best Supporting Actress Oscar right now, and Jackman will probably get nominated for Best Actor.
Unless you don’t like the format (and for some, a sung-through musical set in 19th-century France will be about as enjoyable as waterboarding), it’s hard not to get caught up in the story because there’s so much going on. Javert, far from being a mere villain, is one of literature’s richest characters, an overzealous but justice-seeking man who is prepared to take his own dedication to righteousness as far as it can possibly go. Valjean, saintly as he is after his transformation, is nevertheless a complex hero with a foundation in sin.
The subsidiary characters are not as well-developed but the story keeps expanding from the cat-and-mouse conflict of Javert and
Valjean. As decades pass, Les Mis takes in the love story of the adult Cosette (played by Amanda Seyfried) and a young student, Marius (Eddie Redmayne) and their part in a doomed revolutionary uprising in 1832 Paris. All of these characters (and Marius’s friend Eponine, played by stellar newcomer Samantha Barks) get big, emotional songs in the grand tradition of Broadway, and there is also welcome comic relief amid all the operatic suffering. Every turn of history provides an opportunity for scheming by the shady Dickensian innkeeper Thénardier (Sacha Baron Cohen of Borat) and his wife (Helena Bonham Carter).
Though the film is largely faithful to the show, Hooper does achieve a more intimate feel by bringing his camera in for many closeups, which yields a sensation different from the average big-screen epic. Despite the breadth of time that passes and the use of many far-flung locations, Hooper wants to stay focused on the people, not the history. You are meant to feel every teardrop, every parting, every death scene. And if you’re a fan of dramatic musicals, you will. Now if only Hooper could go back and bring some feeling to Joel Schumacher’s dismal movie version of Phantom of the Opera.
More current release reviews from John Boot:
And check out PJ Lifestyle later this week for John Boot’s review of Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained.