The story of Les Misérables, or Les Mis, has been retold, refilmed, and restaged so many times. Victor Hugo’s historic novel about a man, Jean Valjean, who steals a loaf of bread and serves 19 years of prison for it, has been adapted for the screen at least a dozen times – most notably in the 1937 radio version by Orson Welles, the 2000 mini TV series starring Gérard Depardieu, and of course the 1980 musical by Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schonberg which has graced Broadway 6,680 times between 1987 and 2003. Epic doesn’t begin to cover it.
Tom Hooper (The King’s Speech) directs the 2012 screen adaptation of Les Misérables, starring Hugh Jackman as Jean Valjean and Russell Crowe as the tireless captain Javert. Crowe’s character spends his career chasing the ex-con who broke parole and began a new life as honourable man and father-figure to Cosette (Isabelle Allen and Amanda Seyfried) after the death of her mother Fantine (Anne Hathaway) whom he saves from the streets a little too late. Like any adaptation of a great novel, this one too doesn’t quite match Victor Hugo’s agonized cry for justice and the end of class struggle which the French rebels fought for, but it certainly outshines any other stage or film versions of the novel and musical.
Hooper ought to be applauded for his approach to the material. Although, as with many far-too-epic productions, this one also has its flaws. All the singing is done to live piano accompaniment, and to the camera, with no overdubs whatsoever. Not to mention that this is not your typical musical where characters suddenly break into song. No, here they speak in song too, so Hooper’s version is more like a stage production than a typical movie musical. Orchestration was only added in post-production. This alone is an immense cinematic endeavour, one that you cannot begin to imagine until you watch the film. Because the singing is essentially improvised, it is all the more raw and heartfelt. Jackman as Valjean is a Gollum-like figure of skin, bones, and beard, but with immense willpower that resonates in his voice when he sings “Look Down” at the very beginning of the movie. Tears start making their way through tear ducts almost immediately. All the more so when Jackman’s Valjean is joined by Crowe’s Javert, who cannot sing to save his life, unfortunately. While this is a flaw in the production, Crowe’s singing may also contribute to his character’s coward-factor: a power figure with no power, or in this case, with no pipes.
Now, we need to talk about Anne Hathaway. As Fantine, she is a vision of piety and sorrow. Hathaway is probably on
screen for no more than roughly thirty minutes of a 150 minute-long feature, perhaps even less, yet she devours every scene she is in. She lost nearly twenty-five pounds to play Fantine, a figure both radiant and pitiful. When she looks at the camera with those big eyes and when she opens her cavernous mouth, she is the embodiment of the beautiful wretched, a picture of the void in human form. When she delivers the iconic “I Dreamed a Dream” after just having been raped, with a face blotched red and brown, tears pouring out of her dark eyes, you realize why you love movies, and why you will never forget this performance. I can hardly think of another female role quite as touching as Hathaway’s this year; only Marion Cotillard’s raw turn in Rust and Bones can match it – a whole other kind of wretched.
Hooper should be given credit for taking risks and casting relative newcomers (in terms of singing, at least), with the exception of the Broadway-seasoned Jackman. The film also co-stars Eddie Redmayne as the idealist rebel who is head-over-heels in love with Cosette, Marius. His shining solo moment comes when he delivers a remorse-full version of “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables.” A wonderful Samantha Barks plays the hopelessly in love with him Éponine, whose “On My Own” is one of the movie’s strongest performances after Fantine’s “I Dreamed a Dream” and Valjean’s “What Have I Done.” Of course, a major tear-vehicle like Les Mis needs some comic relief, brought with bravado by Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen as Monsieur and Madame Thénardier, the crooked innkeepers in charge of Cosette until Valjean rescues her. Their performance of “Master of the House” is the movie’s funnest, most inappropriate, and Tim Burton-esque number.
Overall, despite several minor flaws, Les Misérables is a major film. Cinematically speaking, the imperfect improvised performances rewrite movie musical history. All the singing may be too much for some (but in that case, I suggest you look up the performances previously mentioned, which will be quite enough for you to appreciate the film). Jackman and Hathaway are its emotional force.
By Radina Papukchieva