Les Misérables (2012)
Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, Anne Hathaway, Amanda Seyfried, Samantha Barks, Eddie Redmayne, Helena Bonham Carter, Sacha Baron Cohen. Directed by Tom Hooper.
I honestly don’t know how a film like Les Misérables will be received by people who aren’t already fans of the stage musical on which it is based. Every criticism or praise I’ve heard has been from someone who knows and loves the stage production, and it is that filter through which I viewed it myself. I suspect that director Tom Hooper had that in mind, in fact. If the only people he pleases with this film are the fans, that’s already a huge audience, and one that can appreciate his interpretation as he adapts it for this medium.
For the uninitiated, the story is set in the heart of the French Revolution. Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman), formerly a prisoner for stealing bread to give to a hungry child, has fled his parole, changed his identity, and dedicated his life to serving his fellow humans. He owns a factory and is the mayor of a town. He has done many things to atone for his first offenses, but the law says he is still a criminal, and an officer of the law, Inspector Javert (Russell Crowe), has sworn to find him and bring him to justice.
There are other plot elements involving Valjean and an adopted child, and that child’s eventual love interest, and it is all set against the personal tragedy of Valjean’s haunting past and his countrymen’s struggle to liberate themselves. The story is almost completely told in song, and this is where its strengths lie. The music is outstanding, and the songs’ performances in this adaptation are heartbreaking and beautiful. Anne Hathaway’s presentation of “I Dreamed a Dream” is almost guaranteed to slash through your heartstrings like a hatchet through a harp in one of the best musical performances I’ve ever seen in a film. Hathaway’s screen time is very small in this film, but I will be appalled if she is not nominated for a supporting actress Oscar.
Jackman’s singing is quite good, and Crowe’s is passable. He has the physical acting talent to portray an excellent Javert, but his voice is thin and it lacks punch. Still, he hits the notes and I was stirred by his rendition of “Stars.” There have been stories about how Amanda Seyfried as Cosette had great difficulty with her songs during filming (the songs were recorded live as the actors performed, rather than in a soundbooth for later syncing), but she must eventually have found her groove because her songs are wonderfully clear, high, and sweet. The big knock-me-out-of-my-chair surprise is Samantha Barks, whom I had never heard of, as Eponine. She quite nearly steals scenes from Seyfried and Eddie Redmayne, who plays Marius.
If there is a disappointment, I guess it’s with Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter as the Thernadiers. On stage, these characters are the center of a show-stopping number called “Master of the House,” an elaborately staged, heart-racing number that serves as a pivot-point for the story. Seen all at once, it’s an impressive display of what can be done in live theater. In its film version, it’s not given wide-enough an angle, and it feels cramped and far less impressive. At worst, the actors are just okay in their scenes, but just okay seems lacking when compared to the other performances.
There is one new song, “Suddenly,” sung by Valjean, and some of the other songs are snipped, much to my appreciation because I never cared much for “Little People” anyway.
I’ve been blessed to have worked in high-school theater, so I have seen the way every performance of a play is different from every other performance of the same play. This variation and unpredictability work in the film’s favor for fans of Les Misérables, because it can easily take its place alongside other interpretations without attempting to replace any of them, appreciated for its many strengths and forgiven its occasional lapses.
I was a sobbing, tearing mess at the conclusion of this beautiful film, and I’ve heard the songs a hundred times, at least, and I just realized that this sentence could be the entire review. I can’t wait to see it again and again.