Admittedly I went into this screen version of the beloved Broadway play and Victor Hugo novel as one very cynical critic. I was one of the few that really didn’t like the play. It was too schmaltzy and depressing, filled with deliberately heart-string tugging moments and songs. The whole shebang was redeemed in my eyes and mind due to this Tom Hooper (The King’s Speech, The Damned United) directed version which featured a dream cast and enough restraint in this epic story to make is surprisingly intimate. Who would have thunk it!?!
Set in France during the 19th century, Les Misérables is a story of love, courage, sacrifice, and perseverance. Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman – X-Men, Van Helsing) has been cruelly jailed for stealing a single loaf of bread to feed his starving family. After almost two decades of hard labour, Valjean is finally released from prison. After so many years in jail freedom is something he has almost forgotten. Valjean violates his parole soon after in the attempt to make a better life for himself.
A kind and generous priest allows this to happen and Valjean is a changed man who begins to live his life differently. He knows he has to pay forward the same grace shown to him. Valjean, now living under the alias of Monsieur Madeleine, is now a factory owner. Despite his turning his life around Valjean is constantly pursued by Inspector Javert (Russell Crowe – A Beautiful Mind, Gladiator), who wants to make Valjean pay for violating his parole.
As a better man, Valjean agrees to take care of Cosette (Amanda Seyfried – In Time, Mamma Mia!), the daughter of a factory worker, Fantine (Anne Hathaway – The Devil Wears Prada, The Dark Knight Rises), a young woman who dies after turning to prostitution when the fact that her daughter is illegitimate comes to light and she is fired from her factory job. She works the street corners in order to pay her two ruthless landlords, Monsieur (Sacha Baron Cohen – The Dictator, Borat) and Madame Thénardier (Helena Bonham Carter – Fight Club, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hollows, Part 1), the money she owes them. She becomes ill and perishes leaving her young daughter an orphan and alone until Valjean steps in.
Almost a decade later and Cosette is now a young woman herself and the student rebellion in France is about to erupt. Cosette has fallen in love with student Marius (Eddie Redmayne – My Week With Marilyn, The Other Boleyn Girl), who is also being pursued by the Thénardier daughter, Éponine (Samantha Barks). Paris is about to explode in violence as a young romance is blooming.
Not a perfect film by any means it is one in which it serves no purpose to focus in on the faults as they are relatively minor ones; its best to revel in what the film does well. Hooper made a bang on decision when he decided to have his able cast to sing live during the filming of the emotional songs. This allows the actors to inject that much more feeling into what they are doing. You can hear it in their voices. The fragility and the flaws in their voices bring even more to the songs than if they were pitch perfect. As a viewer it allows you to connect all the more with what is going on. Hooper also uses plenty of close ups in these scenes which also adds the dimension of being able to see the emotion on the characters faces as well as in their voices.
Each of the actors has the opportunity to show how inspired they felt while not letting their emotions get away from them too often. Restraint is something that I didn’t expect based on the grandeur of the production and the story. I did, however, get large doses of it. This was especially obvious during the death scenes. Normally these are moments in films/productions like this that go on way to long and are grotesquely over the top. The actors do not wring every bit of emotion out of us during these moments leaving us spent shells for all that is to come. Leave it to the Brit at the helm to go with understated…ok, maybe understated is overstating it, but he does not allow these moments to drag on and on. Hooper takes what can only be described as a risk by decided to go with low-key and it pays off. It ends up making these scenes feel sincere and rips your heart out of your chest.
The casting is spot on. This is probably a dream role for Hugh Jackman. He gets to show his variety of talent in the role of the morally challenged Valjean. Even his higher range voice suits his character. The same can be said of Russell Crowe. His low, raspy voice is well-suited to that of Valjean’s relentless pursuer, Inspector Javert. Both show much restraint in their potentially showy roles. There is some scenery chewing going on, but each man holds back just enough not to make their characters into caricatures. I also found myself with newfound respect for Anne Hathaway. She carries herself well in a role which demanded much of her. In today’s very superficial Hollywood Hathaway cut almost all her hair off and lost a frightening amount of weight to realistically play the ill Fantine. She also demonstrates herself to possess a good voice. While not technically perfect there is the perfect amount of emotion and technique injected into the heartbreaking “I Dreamed a Dream”. Her performance in that song may well have been the main reason she won an Oscar recently. Anne Hathaway is not onscreen for very long, but she definitely makes an impression.
-The West End Connection
-Les Miserables on Location
-Battle at the Barricade
-Les Miserables Singing Live
-The Stars of Les Miserables
-Creating the Perfect Paris
-The Original Masterwork: Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables
-Feature Commentary with Director Tom Hooper