Year of Release: 2012 Directed by Tom Hooper. Starring Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, Anne Hathaway, Amanda Seyfried, Eddie Redmayne, Samantha Barks, Daniel Huttlestone, Aaron Tveit, Isabelle Allen, Sacha Baron Cohen, Helena Bonham Carter, and Colm Wilkinson.
If the opening sequence of Tom Hooper’s film adaption of the hit Broadway show Les Misérables makes fans of the musical nervous, that would be understandable. Regrettably, the opening number “Look Down” is sloppily filmed with abrupt editing, and the acting feels artificial and over the top, as if Hugh Jackman and Russel Crowe are warming up and not yet fully into their characters. I understood Jackman’s decision to sing Valjean’s opening songs in a rough, speak-sing style; it underscores the bitterness and hatred of Valjean, a man who has served nineteen years in a chain gang for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his starving nephew. However, I thought he took it too far, and I wanted to hear a little more of the melodies of the songs.
When Colm Wilkinson, the original Jean Valjean on London and Broadway, enters as the Bishop, the pace of the film relaxes, and the magic of the story begins to shine. Once the narrative jumps forward six years and Jean Valjean has reformed his life and become a respected mayor, then the film gains a strong momentum which it keeps for the remaining two plus hours.
The entire cast gives excellent performances. As the reformed Jean Valjean, Jackman is thoroughly convincing as the man who has dedicated his life to serving others. He performs the powerful end of “Who Am I” with authority, and he has moments of tenderness, such as the new song, “Suddenly.”
As the unmerciful and unrelenting police inspector Javert, Russell Crowe is very competent. He portrays Javert without a shadow of doubt, positive that his ways are just. Crowe’s singing voice may take a little getting used to; it is not the powerful baritone usually associated with the role, but he performs his songs as if he is completely content with his character and decisions, adding to his portrayal’s overall air of arrogance and surety.
Anne Hathaway gives the best performance of her career as the destitute Fantine. Her rendition of “I Dreamed a Dream” is vulnerable, full of emotion ranging from resigned sorrow to overwhelming grief, and it is quite frankly one of the best performances of the song that I have heard. Hathaway’s chances of winning the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress deservedly look very good.
Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter are malicious and funny as the thieving Thenardiers. It is not a stretch to see them in these roles; both of their performances are reminiscent of the performances they gave in Tim Burton’s Sweeney Todd. Their major number, “Master of the House,” is bawdy and rambunctious, and the decision of the music supervisors to transpose the song down a minor third works well. This arrangement in F-sharp Major is much more raucous than the original key of A Major.
The young Daniel Huttlestone has more energy and enthusiasm than the rest of the cast, and he is heart-winning as the young Gavroche. Isabelle Allen is timid, yet sweet and innocent, as the young Cosette, singing “Castle on a Cloud” better than many other child performers. Eddie Redmayne and Amanda Seyfried make a beautiful couple as the devoted Marius and Cosette, who find beauty and love amidst of squalor and turmoil.
Finally, Samantha Barks, who played the role for the 25th Anniversary Concert, is heart-wrenching as Eponine. She knows her part extremely well, and she turns in an understated and haunting performance. “On My Own” and “A Little Fall of Rain” both made me misty eyed. The end of “On My Own” has a beautiful shot as Eponine looks upward towards Heaven, accepting the suffering and sacrifices she must endure.
The only small, but recurring flaw, is Tom Hooper’s direction. A director essentially has two jobs. One: to work with actors, directing good performances from them and capturing them on camera in a way that makes them look good in the film. Two: framing the shots and capturing the sets in the best possible light. Tom Hooper has the first one down solid. In both Les Misérables and The King’s Speech, his cast turns in phenomenal performances which he captures on camera to the best of his advantage and their advantage. However, he needs to work on his technique of capturing sets and framing shots. The King’s Speech did use many close-ups, but there were some remarkable shots of Canterbury Cathedral, the English countryside, and Wembly to name a few. Les Misérables is comprised almost solely of close-ups, and the few long-distance shots are so brief that the audience hardly has time to appreciate the scene. I admired the zoom out on the cathedral after Jean Valjean tears up his parole papers.
I thought the close-ups worked well for the solo numbers; it made them intimate and feel like an extension of the staging, but I would have appreciated more variety in angles and backgrounds. Instead the camera was always placed as close to the actor’s face as possible at a slight downward angle. This technique does reinforce the morals and themes of the story by making the viewer look down and focus on the omnipresent suffering, which is what the characters do until the end of the story. However, a little more variety would have made the technique more powerful.
The film is a very loyal adaptation of the stage production, and the few changes enhance and aid the story. The song “Turning,” which grinds the action of the stage production to a halt, was cut except for half of one verse. “Drink with Me” was only two verses: one for the revolutionaries and one for Marius to long for Cosette; more verses, which the stage show has, interrupt the story arc.
The two changes that I appreciated most were the revelation of Valjean’s identity and the finale. As in the book, Valjean reveals his identity to save a man falsely accused. On stage, this a trap set up by Javert, which makes no sense, because when Javert learns late in Act II that Valjean has changed and become merciful, that shakes his world. If he knew that early in Act I, that destroys his character’s arc. The other problem with the stage show is the ending. While I am always moved by the finale of the stage production, there is a notable absence. The one character most instrumental to the entire story is missing. That character is present in the film’s ending.
Tom Hooper’s Les Misérables may not be the perfect adaptation that many fans were hoping for, but it still has solid production values that underscore Victor Hugo’s deeply Christian story. Hooper does manage to place the audience right next to the miserable characters, and for the most part, he keeps the viewers looking down on the gritty Paris streets. But there are moments of hope, moments when characters look up and sacrifice themselves for others. These moments are noticeably captured by the camera, such as a costly sacrifice, vividly reminding the audience of “the truth that once was spoken: to love another person is to see the face of God.”
Content Advisory: Sexually suggestive scenes and song lyrics, scenes of mildly gory violence, a suicide, coarse humor, and brief crass language. MPAA rating: PG-13
Suggested Audience: Teens and up with discernment.
Personal Recommendation: A-