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.
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.
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And check out PJ Lifestyle later this week for John Boot’s review of Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained.