Based on the massively successful and long-enduring West End musical (itself based on the Victor Hugo novel), Les Misérables follows the life of Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) in 19th Century France, a former prisoner who breaks his parole and is then hunted for years by the ruthless policeman Javert (Russell Crowe). After coming to the aid of down-on-her-luck factory worker Fantine (Anne Hathaway) and agreeing to look after and bring up her daughter Cosette, he continues to try and evade capture among the turmoil of the Paris Uprising of 1832.
I have to admit straight away that I’ve never seen the stage musical upon which this is based but it’s a testament to director Tom Hooper (The King’s Speech) and screenwriter William Nicholson (Gladiator) that it’s still a powerful and compelling musical experience in its own right without needing to have prior knowledge.
Hooper in particular should be commended for taking on this mammoth cinematic production and controlling it, even with its occasionally free-wheeling plot that threatens to ramble. Unlike most film musicals, Hooper has chosen to film the singing live, that is he had the actors sing while the cameras were rolling as opposed to having them mime and then record the singing later. This is a very ballsy move as it so easily could have backfired into a mess of clunky transitions and plain bad singing. However, thanks to strong musical and physical performances from the cast that risk has entirely paid off.
Speaking of which, much of the film’s power comes from its cast. It’s the kind of ensemble of faces and performances that you can’t quite take your eyes off throughout. We first see Jackman with black teeth, dirt covered face and patchy hair, a broken and punished man sentenced for stealing a loaf of bread. His transformation both physically and performance-wise into the successful businessman is quite impressive indeed, and his performance is an emotional anchor for the audience throughout.
Hathaway, who’s actually in it a lot less than you might expect, is astonishing as a mother desperate but unable to fend for herself and her daughter. Her signature scene, a Passion of Joan of Arc-esque plain shot of her as she emotionally belts out I Dreamed a Dream, is a highlight of the film and allows Hathaway to linger long in the mind even when other characters take over the story. Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter are another of the film’s highlights as a cheeky pickpocket husband and wife duo, providing the welcome comedic relief from the rest of the misery. The only major weak link in the chain is Russell Crowe whose singing voice is not so much bad as just odd, resembling shouting half-way in tune more than anything else.
At 160 minutes the film is overly long. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with a film of that length if it can justify it by sustaining a pace and, of course, the audience’s attention. A good 20-30 mins – which were either devoted to entire, arguably unnecessary subplots or scenes which didn’t need to go on for as long – could have been easily trimmed to make for a tighter, more cohesive film.
In order to get the most out of Les Misérables you have to submit yourself to the particular style of musical that it is where even conversations are made lyrical. It’s not going to convert anyone adverse to musicals in general, but for those willing to go with it it’s a rewarding journey. It may lean into bombastic and arguably indulgent territory on occasion but that’s all part of an experience where deep human emotions are realized as much in detail as in the bigger picture. This is a brave, bold technical feat of scale and rousing power made all the more effective by the diverse but similarly excellent performances.
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