Synopsis: In 19th-century France, Jean Valjean, who for decades has been hunted by the ruthless policeman Javert after he breaks parole, agrees to care for factory worker Fantine’s daughter, Cosette. The fateful decision changes their lives forever.
Stars: Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, Anne Hathaway, Amanda Seyfried, Eddie Redmayne, Aaron Tveit, Samantha Barks, Helena Bonham Carter, Sacha Baron Cohen
Director: Tom Hooper
Running Length: 157 minutes
Trailer Review: Here
TMMM Score: (8.5/10)
Review: Fair Warning Note: It’s next to impossible to give any kind of review of Les Misérables without mentioning a few key moments that some may consider spoilers. I don’t think I’ll be saying anything you aren’t well aware of, but just in case…
In the early 90’s, producer Cameron Mackintosh attempted to get a movie version of his international mega-hit Les Misérables off the ground but with musicals still considered out of fashion it was not to be. In 1998 a highly underrated non-musical adaptation of Victor Hugo’s epic tale was released starring Liam Neeson, Geoffrey Rush, Uma Thurman, and Claire Danes. As musicals started coming back into fashion, interest was raised again in this tale of redemption and sacrifice set around the time of the French Revolution.
Still, it wasn’t until newly minted Oscar winner Hooper (The King’s Speech) gave the property some attention that Mackintosh finally saw his pet project get the film treatment he had long sought. Was it worth the wait for fans of the musical like myself? Well, having seen Les Misérables countless times on tour, in London, and locally I can say that this fan left the theater satisfied and red-eyed from a finale that ate up my supply of tissues.
If you’ve read anything about the production of this musical, you’ll know that Hooper asked his actors to sing live to avoid the lyp-synching done in most films. On paper, this sounds like a great idea and for the most part I thought it succeeded. Would I have liked some of the actors to have a stronger delivery of the difficult material and a fuller sound? Maybe. On the other hand, I wouldn’t have sacrificed some excellent and immediate performances that spring out of this technique just to smooth out some rough vocal patches.
Author Hugo weaved multiple characters over many years in his lengthy novel and a true plot synopsis would take up too much space here. What you should know is that this is a story centered on Jean Valjean (Jackman), a convict who breaks his parole when he realizes that his future is already laid out before him. Turned away for work and denied even a place to sleep, it’s the kindness shown by a bishop (original London/Broadway Jean Valjean Colm Wilkinson) that changes the course of his life.
Jumping forward in time, Valjean is now a mayor and business owner. A chance encounter with his former prison guard Javert (Crowe) and dying factory worker Fantine (Hathaway) again alters his path as he takes charge of Fantine’s young daughter Cosette and disappears from Javert’s sight again. The final act is played out in the streets of Paris where convict and pursuer meet again in the midst of a bloody battle for freedom by students and unhappy citizens.
Jackman throws every inch of himself into the role, starting the picture with a bruised and battered appearance that wouldn’t be out of place at the end of a horror movie. Gaunt and wide-eyed, he is desperate to gain true freedom at any cost. Vocally, Jackman is more than up to the challenge of Jean Valjean and he confidently navigates the high (notes) and lows of the character. My only nitpick with Jackman is that he only seems to be able to sing at one volume…loud. Anything less than that is spoken or colored with more intensity that a softer song needs. “Bring Him Home” has always been a quiet battlefield ballad and Jackman sings it so loudly to a sleeping Marius (Redmayne) that I half expected the slumbering chap to open one eye to let us know he was really awake.
In his role as the unforgiving Javert, Crowe has an uphill battle to climb that he never really gets a good foothold for. He’s not a bad singer, let’s not be cruel, but he’s not vocally right for this role and seems to know it. Javert’s big number, “Stars”, requires some real strength not only in dramatic delivery but in vocal support and Crowe didn’t nail it for me. His acting tends to suffer because of this so while I believed that he was a man obsessed with finding this convict, I didn’t see the breakdown of will that occurs within the character as his hunt draws to a close.
Redmayne and Seyfried are nicely lovey-dovey and if Seyfried’s reedy, thin, and heavily vibrato-ed soprano buckles under Redmayne’s assured baritenor, they at least create a palpable attraction in their moments together. London stage actress Barks makes the most of her limited screen time with a character doomed to love a man that doesn’t notice her until it’s too late. She makes tender gems out of the material, whether it’s the scaled back power ballad “On My Own” or a duet with Redmayne on “A Little Fall of Rain”. Baron Cohen (The Dictator) and Bonham Carter (Dark Shadows) reunite after another period musical (Sweeney Todd) and make the most out of their roles as crooked innkeepers. Their material isn’t that hard, which is good for Bonham Carter’s barely-there voice.
Finally, it’s Hathaway who pretty much walks away with the movie. I’ve long found Hathaway to be an annoyance whether on screen or in interviews but in taking the dark role of a woman who sells her body (and hair and teeth) to support her daughter, she’s found a role that gave me a newfound respect for her. Gone is the toothy, winking, aw-shucks, pleaser and in her place is an actress that has given herself fully to the work. She sings beautifully, her grief is laid bare, and she provides some of the more stirring moments in the fast moving film. If Hathaway doesn’t win an Oscar for her work, it will be a crime because she absolutely deserves it and I’m pretty sure I’ve seen every performance that might be up for the award this year.
Hooper films much of the film in close-up, letting many of the songs play out in uninterrupted takes. Some have criticized this saying that it makes the film feel smaller than it is. I totally disagree and feel that the close-ups, combined with the live singing make the movie feel more real and alive than ever. Much of the material is heart-wrenching (some may say cloying) and to have an actor singing live and actually feeling the material adds necessary oomph.
Tremendously moving (like I said, the ending wrung my tear ducts dry), the film does drag in a few sequences. A new song was written for the film and it doesn’t add anything to the proceedings – it’s really a near shameless attempt to add another Oscar nomination to the bevy of awards the film will certainly be up for. Some wise truncating/eliminating of songs and a few small shuffles in order help keep the film moving but I can see where the movie may test your bladder as it comes upon its finale just shy of three hours.
As someone who responds to the music and appreciated what the filmmakers were trying to do, Les Misérables fit the bill of entertainment for me. What you take out of it could be something totally different but any movie that lays itself bare and deals with issues of the redemption that we all seek and the ultimate sacrifice we eventually make deserves some attention.