In light of some of the early reactions, perhaps the most important thing to note about Les Miserables the film is that it is, in fact, the film of Les Miserables–and so, yes, bombastic voices raised in song and unfettered melodrama are the order of the day. Les Miz doesn’t exist, and never has, in the clean, uncluttered, perfectly ordered world of, say, Stephen Sondheim–it’s the epitome of everything and the kitchen sink musical theatre, all about the romance and glory of doom and destiny and agony and hope, with the pieces piled as haphazardly as the barricades that dominate its second half. Protestations about fuzzy logic and overwrought emotions simply miss the point.
It’s taken more than a quarter-century for Les Miz to reach the big screen, and Tom Hooper’s film, from a script by playwrights and lyricists Claude-Michel Schonberg, Alain Boubil, and Herbert Kretzmer, along with William Nicholson, is for the most part an excellent, rousing, moving adaptation, the excesses lovingly preserved, and produced at an epic scale impossible on Broadway or in any other theater.
The story, of course, taken from Victor Hugo’s novel, centers on Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman), jailed for stealing some bread for his sister’s starving children, and even after he’s served his hard time, unable to make a life for himself under the cruel terms of France’s paroles system. Valjean escapes, pursued to the ends of the earth by the implacable Inspector Javert (Russell Crowe), and under another identity prospers as a factory owner. But after he finds himself responsible for the death of one of his workers who’s become a prostitute, the woeful Fantine (Anne Hathaway), he appoints himself the guardian of her daughter Cosette (Isabelle Allen, and then Amanda Seyfried), who had been (barely) in the care of the thieving Thenardiers (Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter), and Valjean and the girl have to flee again. A decade passes, until in the Paris of 1832, the paths of all the characters–including budding revolutionaries Marius (Eddie Redmayne) and Enjolras (Aaron Tveit), along with Eponime (Samantha Barks), the daughter of the Thenardiers who loves Marius–cross amidst the bloodshed of the students’ desperate war against the country’s greedy rulers.
As has been much publicized, Hooper’s main innovation as a musical filmmaker was to have the actors sing live on the set (a piano track of the music was piped into earpieces for them), instead of lip-synching to a previously recorded vocal track. The result, in many cases, is an emotional immediacy rare in musical movies–what the renditions may sometimes lack in studio perfection, they more than compensate by being genuinely acted before our eyes. Nowhere is this more evident than in the already justly praised performance of Hathaway, who steps into some big shoes here (Patti LuPone created the part of Fantine in London) and seizes her big number “I Dreamed A Dream” as though the Oscar itself were going to be presented to her after the last note sounded. (It probably will be.) Hooper holds the camera on her in a daringly long, intense close-up, and Hathaway, to paraphrase another of the show’s classic songs, brings it home.
Most of the casting is close to ideal. Hugh Jackman has for years nurtured a schizophrenic career–Wolverine on screen, Peter Allen or Curly in Oklahoma on stage–and Les Miz finally allows him to put all his talents to use in one role, as convincing as a dramatic lead as he is when he belts out a song. Seyfried, who had previously sung in Mamma Mia!, has a beautiful voice, and the angelic looks appropriate for Cosette. Barks, a veteran of the most recent stage production, is a sparkplug of an Eponine, and Tveit, who won acclaim for Next To Normal on Broadway, singlehandedly makes Enjolras into a something close to a co-lead, while Redmayne, not previously known as a singer, turns out to have loads of vocal talent as Marius. As a gift to the show’s fans, Hooper has cast the original Jean Valjean, Colm Wilkinson, in a small but meaty role as the Bishop who sets Valjean on his path of redemption; the sound of Wilkinson and Jackman singing together, early in the film, is enough to send tremors down one’s spine.
Russell Crowe… not so much. Crowe would have been a perfectly reasonable choice as Javert in a dramatic production of Les Miserables, and it’s not entirely fair to say that he can’t sing. (He’s been part of an Australian band for years.) But he can’t do this kind of dramatic singing, not comfortably, and something jarring occurs every time he opens his struggling mouth. This is particularly unfortunate because Javert has some of the strongest monologue songs in the show, and because his shortcomings cause an imbalance in the central dramatic relationship between Valjean and Javert. Also, Hooper has misjudged the Thenardier sequences, which are tricky because their boisterous humor is of a different tone than anything else in Les Miz. Cohen and Carter are perhaps all too much on the nose as casting (both seem to be reprising their performances from Sweeney Todd, a far more stylized musical), and Hooper’s style of tight close-ups interspersed with frantic cutting makes their numbers more of an ordeal than a break in the overall grim tone.
Those errors aside, this production of Les Miz is largely all one could have hoped for. The material itself, of course, has its own longeurs (I could always have done without the half-hour at dead center when Marius, Eponine and Cosette sing at length about how much they adore one another), and at 158 minutes, there are moments one might want to consult a mental Playbill. But the glorious cinematography by Danny Cohen (who also worked with Hooper on The King’s Speech and John Adams), the production design by Eve Stewart (also a King’s Speech vet) and costume design by Paco Delgado bring the show to life in ways the stage could only suggest.
Les Miserables is bulky and imperfect, as it’s always been, and those who know they dislike the show might as well stay home. But anyone who loves the musical should be thoroughly pleased with this film translation, and those who’ve resisted its call all these years should give it a chance. There’s a reason it’s provoked cheers and sobs for 25 years.
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|US Release||Dec. 25, 2012|
|UK Release||Jan. 11, 2013|
|AUS Release||Dec. 26, 2012|
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