Tom Hooper’s adaptation of the stage musical sensation Les Misérables boasts squalor, sentiment and spectacle. Les Misérables, based on the stage musical of Victor Hugo’s thumping novel, is a film that has everything all on a monumental scale. It boasts action and romance, but also differing levels of coincidence and drastic changes of heart and fortune.
It unfolds, with confident spectacle, on a grand scale. Most of it is sung: this panorama of Paris may belong to cinema, but its soul is pure opera. Hugh Jackman plays the pivotal role of Jean Valjean, whom we first see in 1815 as an emaciated convict doing hard labour for the crime of stealing a loaf of bread.
From the moment the newly released convict Jean Valjen stares into the pitiless gaze of the policeman Inspector Javert (Russell Crowe) their hatred for one another is clear. After Valjean breaks parole he vanishes. With the help of a saintly Bishop, Valjean comes to trust humanity and God again, a faith that he lost after 19 years of vicious incarceration.
Valjean reappears eight years later in Montreuil. He has reinvented himself as a wealthy businessman and Mayor of Montreuil. But he can’t shake off the pursuing fury of his one-time captor, whose obsessive and inexplicable antagonism towards Valjean is the engine of the whole plot.
Valjean’s fight is complicated by the fact that he promised a dying prostitute he rescued, Fantine (Anne Hathaway), that he would look after her daughter Cosette (Isabelle Allen as a child, Amanda Seyfried as a young woman).
Anne Hathaway is on screen for a relatively short time, yet makes a startling impact. There’s an authentic gleam of desperation in her mournful brown eyes, and the interpretation of her treatment is unsparing. Hathaway will break your heart with her performance of ‘I Dreamed A Dream’. The paean of loss is delivered in its entirety, as a tight shot of Hathaway’s face. We see in every quiver of her mouth, and flash of her eyes, the despair, humiliation, and in the end, fury she feels that “life has killed the dream (she) dreams.”
Director Tom Hooper (The King’s Speech) decided that all of the songs would be recorded live, rather than lip sung during filming and added in post-production. Whether or not this technique is as innovative as some have praised it to be is beside the point, because it’s effective. This is a production that has taken the time to get every single element to the point of perfection.
The live singing allowed the actors to perform songs with impromptu nuance, rather than be forced to fit their faces to a separate vocal track. This immediacy gives the ballads the exhilaration of the stage, and the camera provides something Broadway never could, close-ups of the actors’ faces.
The frail Fantine becomes mere meat to others’ lust for survival, from the chorus of harridans who hound her from her factory job, to the human vultures who harvest her hair and teeth for cash.
The second act, which shifts to Paris in 1832, trains the spotlight on Eddie Redmayne as Marius, a revolutionary firebrand who falls in love with Cosette (Amanda Seyfried), Fantine’s grown-up daughter just before he helps man the barricades against the repressive French government of 1832. Eddie is also loved by the forlorn Eponine (Samantha Barks), a love which is unrequited and utterly heart-breaking. These three acquit themselves pretty well, Redmayne in particular steadying the ship with his firm tenor.
Jackman anchors the film with the rare sense of sturdy compassion, whilst Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen provide a dark dose of filthy comedy as the Thénardiers, a couple of indestructible grotesques on the make. But their performance does become a tad tiresome.
The closest the film comes to theatre is the final tableau of the cast, clambering back on the barricade to sing their hearts out again, even the ones who died in the story. Mark my words, you’ll be fighting to urge to clap or join in by the end.
Truly revolutionary and visually stunning, Les Misérables isn’t just the most ambitious British movie ever made- it may very well be the best.
By Ruth Walker