Review: Les Misérables

Directed by: Tom Hooper
Written by:William Nicholson
Starring: Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, Anne Hathaway, Amanda Seyfried, Eddie Redmayne, Sacha Baron Cohen, Helena Bonham Carter
Released: December 26, 2012
Grade: A-

Les Misérables
How do you prefer your big-budget Hollywood musicals?  Do you prefer them light or heavy?  Do you like colour, comedy and razzle-dazzle?  Or would you rather something darker, deeper and more emotional?

The public’s preference over the past decade has been towards “lighter” musicals.  Mamma Mia! (2008) took a staggering $609m at the international box-office and not far behind have been the likes of Chicago (2002) with $306m, High School Musical 3 (2008) with $252m, and Hairspray (2007) with $202m.

Heavier musicals haven’t been as popular.  Dreamgirls (2006) managed $155m internationally but it’s the best of a bunch that includes The Phantom Of The Opera (2004) with $154m, and Sweeney Todd (2007) with $152m.

Les Misérables is trying to buck that trend.  Given its reputation, you’d like to think it has a good chance.  The English-language version of the live musical opened in London back in October 1985.  It is still showing today and holds the records as the West End’s longest running production.  In total, it has now been seen by more than 60 million people in 42 countries.

For those unfamiliar with the story, it comes from the 1862 novel written by Victor Hugo and is set in the first half of the 19th Century.  It opens with Jean Valjean (Jackman) finally been released from prison after serving a 19 year sentence.  His crime?  Stealing a loaf of bread to feed his sister’s starving family.

Valjean is looking for a clean start, a new life.  The man determined to stop him is Inspector Javier (Crowe).  He doesn’t believe that a “leopard can change his spots” and is convinced that Valjean will reoffend.  This is further confirmed when Valjean fails to visit his parole officer and then disappears.  It sets Javier on a quest, spread across many years, to find Valjean and bring him back into the custody of the Parisian authorities.

There are other players in this ensemble.  They include Fantine (Hathaway), a young woman who loses her job and is forced into a life of prostitution.  Her only daughter, Cosette (Seyfried), will grow up and fall in love with a student (Redmayne) who is part of the revolution to overthrow the French government.  There’s also Thenardier (Baron Cohen) and his wife (Bonham Carter) – two thieves without a shred of moral fibre.

With a handful of exceptions, every piece of dialogue is sung.  Academy Award winning director Tom Hooper (The King’s Speech) made a few small trims (only one whole song needed to be cut) and has managed to squeeze it into a two and a half hour running time.

Hooper also made the interesting decision to have the actors sing the songs as they were performing, as opposed to recording them in a music studio.  It’s a good move and gives the film an added layer of authenticity.  This is highlighted by a heartfelt moment when Anne Hathaway delivers her big solo number.  The camera zooms in on her face and does not move.  We see the tears in her eyes and can hear the desperation in her voice.  Such a shot would not be possible if forced to mime.

It’s the performances that are the key to this cinematic version of Les Misérables.  It took me a while to warm to the gloomy premise but the beautiful voices, coupled with the famous lyrics, bring out the emotion of the situation and make us appreciate the hopeless plight of these characters.  It’s been a few days since I saw the film but the memorable songs are still washing around inside my head.

Hugh Jackman (X-Men) is superb and he is matched by a surprising performance from Russell Crowe (Gladiator).  You may not see Crowe singing the high notes in a church choir but his rough voice makes him a worthy choice as Inspector Javier.  Anne Hathaway (The Devil Wears Prada) dominates every scene in which she appears and is on track to win the supporting actress Oscar.  Perhaps the biggest shock for me was hearing the sweet, delicate voice of young English actor Eddie Redmayne (My Week With Marilyn).

The film makes the most of the cinematic medium, particularly through the use of close ups, and is a worthy adaptation of this much beloved musical.  It’s heavy-going and there’s not much in the way of comedic respite but Les Misérables is a captivating tale of love, forgiveness and redemption.

You can read my interview with director Tom Hooper by clicking here.