Director: Tom Hooper
Writer: William Nicholson (screenplay), Claude-Michel Schonberg, Alain Boublil (musical), Victor Hugo (novel)
Stars: Hugh Jackman, Anne Hathaway, Russell Crowe, Amanda Seyfried
Release date: December 25th, 2013
Distributor: Universal Pictures
Running time: 158 minutes
Best part: Oscar-worthy performances from Jackman and Hathaway.
Worst part: The love triangle.
A young girl’s visage is draped across the screen, her voice whistling in the wind as she drags her suitcase cross a bitterly snow-covered French landscape. This devastating image is part of what makes 2012’s Les Miserables such a profound piece of theatrical storytelling. This story now has a cinematic opus worthy of its esteemed emotional core and harsh re-telling of the French Revolution. Les Miserables is a moody and eclectic adaptation of this epic story of rebellion in the heart of 19th century Paris.
Les Miserables captures the visceral qualities of this historically significant tale. Based on the 1862 Victor Hugo novel, the stage musical has been adapted countlessly on stage and screen. This adaptation begins with Jean Valjean(Hugh Jackman)’s release after a 19 year imprisonment. Locked up for stealing a loaf of bread, his courage and tenacity have led to an exiled existence. Cast out into the cold by both the law and the lower class, Valjean’s religious awakening leads to a life in hiding. 8 years later and Valjean, having broken his parole laws, is the target of Parisian prison guard Javert (Russell Crowe). Valjean seeks a peaceful life in France as a factory owner. Despite Valjean’s efforts to keep women in his factory and out of the cold, the ill-fortunes of single mother Fantine (Anne Hathaway) go tragically unnoticed. Valjean swears to protect her daughter Cosette, feeling he has wronged Fantine in horrific ways. Years later, the ‘June Rebellion’ affects both Valjean and Cosette (Amanda Seyfried), as Cosette falls in love and Valjean’s time on the run may soon be at an end.
Les Miserables is much more of a sweeping epic than a dull period piece. The film captures one of Europe’s darkest times through a haunting visual style. Each filthy, claustrophobic setting becomes a dark labyrinth. This is a story where good people are made to suffer and wallow in filth while people who can help stand over them. For example, the first scene is one of astounding beauty and severe consequence for our hero. A ship is pulled into the docks by an army of prisoners. Their chant is a battle cry of hatred and despair, while Javert looks down upon them with an unmistakeable sense of disgust. ‘Look Down’ is one of the film’s greatest musical numbers and a perfect way to introduce the increasingly sombre tone. Tom Hooper (The King’s Speech) once again proves to be an Oscar-worthy visionary. His take on a beloved classic is an emotionally powerful stance against crime and corruption. Hooper has created an uplifting modern musical and a stirringly cinematic Spartacus/A Tale of Two Cities style epic. Atrocities in 21 century France, Egypt and Libya make this harrowing story of teenage rebellion as relevant today as it was during the acclaimed novel’s creation. The ‘June Rebellion’ is one of the film’s most powerful sequences.
Guns and ideologies clash as political uprising rears its ugly head. ‘Red and Black’ is harmoniously voiced in unison; becoming a rousing musical number with moral and social importance. Despite this story’s stance on civil upheaval, this is an operatic tale of loss and redemption from Valjean’s perspective. Valjean is a man convinced that religion and humanity have shown him the way to a better life. He is a strong protagonist in this cat-and-mouse tale as he constantly searches for a way to enlighten his tragic existence. Fantine, however, becomes brutally disfigured by loss and heartache. Her sacrifices were made so that Cosette could live a peaceful life. But Fantine tragically falls into the depths of tuberculosis and prostitution. Javert, on the other hand, is a vague character. His obsession with catching Valjean remains sorely enigmatic and understated. This bombastic affair is tempered by Hooper’s choice to have his actors sing live. Instead of the over-dubbing process used in most screen musicals, this unique process allows the vocals to intertwine seamlessly with the soundtrack. Each sputter, tear and torment comes across in each note, aiding the darkness of this adaptation. Hooper’s hand-held camera-work also adds to the film’s gritty edge. Focusing on the wavering emotions embedded in each character, the camera tracks across each scene and illuminates the endless emotional current.
“To love another person is to see the face of God.” (Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman), Les Miserables).
The camera-work matches each crescendo, using swift crane shots to transition from one scene to the next. The film’s stellar performances are likely to garner Oscar acclaim. Jackman has never been better. He is a captivating presence as every ballad is delivered with melodic force. ‘Valjean’s Soliloquy’ is performed with a devastating amount of pain and anger. Hathaway is a remarkable talent here as Fantine. Her portrayal is one of harrowing sorrow; providing the definitive version of ‘I Dreamed a Dream’. Bravo! Russell Crowe is always an intense presence on-screen. He continues this here going scene for scene with Jackman. He is however unable to match Jackman’s stellar vocal range. His gruff tone hammers each ballad with a thud instead of a ring. The sickening tone is balanced by Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter as ludicrous thieving innkeepers, the Thenardiers. ‘Master of the House’ is a harmonious and whimsical number illustrating the depths they have sunken to. Seyfried brings a canary-like chirp to scenes of emotional dexterity. The love story however is underdeveloped. Seyfried, Eddie Redmayne and Samantha Barks are convincing yet shift the focus too far away from Jackman’s enthralling embodiment of Valjean.
Hooper’s adaptation of Les Miserables hits the high notes. Powerful performances and rousing musical numbers stand out in this cinematic extravaganza likely to compel audiences during Oscar season.