Les Miserables (2012)

Published on January 8th, 2013

les_mis1By Myles Trundle

Director: Tom Hooper
Writers: William Nicholson, from the musical by Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boublil and novel by Victor Hugo. Music by Schönberg. Lyrics by Boublil and Jean-Marc Natel (English adaptation by Herbert Kretzmer)
Starring: Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, Anne Hathaway, Amanda Seyfried, Eddie Redmayne, Samantha Banks, Sacha Baron Cohen, Helena Bonham Carter
Length: 157 min.

After serving nearly two decades of a prison sentence for a petty crime, Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) breaks his parole to start an honest life. But it is a life lived on the run from the determined Inspector Javert (Russell Crowe), who seeks to bring him to justice.

In the years that follow, a wealthy and re-established Valjean encounters the fated Fantine (Anne Hathaway), who leaves behind a child, Cosette (Amanda Seyfried). In part to blame for Fantine’s tragic circumstances, Valjean vows to retrieve Cosette and raise her as his own child.

As social unrest begins to sweep Paris and the cobblestone streets trickle red with revolutionary blood, the musical’s iconic music and bombastic drama build to a mountainous range of emotional peaks and stirring confrontations that will stick with you long after you’ve dried your inevitably tearful eyes.

To re-imagine the now 27-year-old Les Misérables stage musical for the silver screen requires a reinvigorated approach and creative vision. For better and worse, director Tom Hooper provides that vision and doesn’t hold back on his distinct filmmaking “style.” With askew camera tilts, countless claustrophobic close ups, stilted editing, and fluid camerawork that makes you feel as though the cinema could be swept away by a tidal wave at any moment, Hooper sometimes over-intensifies an already dramatic story with his directorial tics, but not without capturing some impressive performances from his star-studded cast.

Hugh Jackman’s raw feeling and exertion as the redemption-seeking Valjean provides a steadfast backbone for the film. As Javert, Russell Crowe’s singing voice doesn’t wield the same power or dynamism as his on-screen rival’s, but the actor’s authoritative presence is enough.

It’s scene-stealer Anne Hathaway, however, who breaks this musical wide open early on with her anguished rendition of “I Dreamed a Dream.”  Hathaway sings Fantine’s swan song of defeated dreams and rock-bottom reflections with such unglamourised desperation and unguarded agony that it’s harrowing.

Despite the innovative on-set singing that makes Hathaway’s “Dream” so immediate, occasionally one can’t help but wish that an actor like Jackman be allowed to lend a transcendental operatic note to his songs – like Alfie Boe in Les Misérables’ 25th anniversary concert – and break free of the dramatic grit and groundedness that Hooper’s interpretation demands.

That’s not to say Hooper’s speak-singing vision diminishes the Les Mis experience; rather, it is an altogether new way to introduce or reacquaint an audience to this iconic musical. A reevaluation of priorities separates this adaptation from the stage musical. On stage, the performers’ vocal prowess is a defining component. On film, cinematic visuals, celebrity status, and Hollywood’s contemporary fascination with gritty re-imaginings of old entertainment texts (see also J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek (2009) and Ridley Scott’s Robin Hood (2010)) take precedence. The differences make Hooper’s interpretation unique, but at the cost of elements that make the musical the phenomenon it is.

les_mis3With the distinct exception of the vocals, Les Misérables’ transition from stage to screen is a relatively straightforward one. Cinema’s capacity for capturing detail does justice to the richness of the material. Indeed, William Nicholson’s adapted screenplay provides additional clarity and context on details the musical never directly states, such as Cossette and Éponine (Samantha Barks) growing up as childhood siblings before Valjean’s intervention. By drawing from Les Misérables’ source text (Victor Hugo’s 1862 novel of the same name), as well as reshuffling some passages of the musical, the film maintains and expands the core story while exploiting the world-building capabilities of film as a medium.

What makes Les Misérables so affecting is how it dramatises such a large spectrum of the human experience. With its zombie-like poor clamouring for survival in wretched conditions, a constant sense of hopeless despair, and a character death never far away, Les Mis can, at times, resemble a post-apocalyptic nightmare. It isn’t called “The Miserable Ones” for nothing. Indeed, the film’s second act is a near-exhausting haul of romanticised deaths and “pass the tissues” moments.

But the sharp contrast between these passages and lighter elements such as a wedding and comic relief characters, the Thénardiers (Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter), makes these happier moments all the more endearing. The cost of this contrast, however, is an uneven tone.

While Les Mis is most powerful during its darkest moments, Hooper’s affecting onslaught on the emotions always holds a hint of hope close to its heart. The tender blend of love, misery, joy, sadness, and faith makes Les Misérables a life-affirming journey, mostly worth the tears and Kleenex investment.

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