Hugh Jackman as Jean Valjean
DIRECTED By: Tom Hooper
WRITTEN By: William Nicholson, Alain Boublil, Claude Michel-Schonberg & Herbert Kretzmer
PRODUCED By: Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner, Debra Hayward & Cameron Mackintosh
DISTRIBUTED By: Universal Pictures
RATED PG-13 FOR SUGGESTIVE AND SEXUAL MATERIAL, VIOLENCE AND THEMATIC ELEMENTS
Sacha Baron Cohen
Helena Bonham Carter
by Jeremy Goeckner, Editor-in-Chief
To Love Another Person...
How do you solve a problem like Les Miserables? No, that’s not just a way to get another musical reference into this review (pretty good though, right?). But this musical, more than any other in history, has the toughest task of translating the stage product to the screen. For one, it’s story spans many years, it’s entirely sung on stage, and the fan-base is so rabid that it almost reaches Trekkie territory.
Enter the freshly crowned Best Director Tom Hooper. He conquered Hollywood with The King’s Speech and has now set his sights on what many call the best musical ever written. He came in with the intensity needed to demand the most out of his actors and with a radical new notion of having them sing their music live on the sound stage. So what’s the result? One of the best movie-musicals ever made.
Many people are familiar with the story of Victor Hugo’s classic 19th Century novel. Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) is imprisoned for 19 years for trying to steal a loaf of bread to feed his sister and her child. He’s tried to escape many times leading to more years. He is watched over by Javert (Russell Crowe), a single-minded law-enforcer who tells Valjean not to disobey the rules of his parole lest he answer once again to him.
As you might expect, life is pretty hard for a recently paroled convict in 1700s France. Valjean is finally shown kindness by a bishop (Colm Wilkinson), which he repays by stealing the man’s silver. When he is caught and brought back, the bishop explains that he gave the silver to Valjean, telling him later that he has “saved his soul for God” and to use the silver “to become an honest man”.
I spend some time here because it is the focal point of the entire story. This forgiveness leads Valjean to change his entire outlook on life, concentrating on helping as many people as he can. Jackman gives one of the best single scene performances of the year singing out the wickedness he feels and the determination with which he will move forward to become a better person.
Anne Hathaway as Fantine
Now, many a critic will tell you that this story of Christian forgiveness and personal change is naive and too simplistic. I will tell you they are wrong. At our deepest level, we all wish to do the right thing; to be better people. If a story can make you see and feel how possible it is to come back from any depth, then that story is the furthest from simplistic and it is of the most paramount importance. Back to the movie.
Throughout the rest of the film we meet a myriad of characters met by Valjean as he attempts to make a new life, including becoming a mayor and factory owner. Among those are Fantine (Anne Hathaway) a worker at Valjean’s factory that is dismissed when it is discovered she had a child out of wedlock. This starts a painful descent of dignity and pride; from selling her hair and teeth to becoming a prostitute. This culminates in the heartbreaking “I Dreamed A Dream”, a ballad of regret and sorrow that Hathaway sings in one single take and will most likely win her an Oscar. It is a jaw-dropping scene.
Valjean realizes that he has wronged Fantine, and as she lies dying, he promises to look after her daughter and protect her. This brings him to the home of the Thenardiers (Sasha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter), two thieving landlords that aren’t above haggling with Valjean for Cossette, Fantine’s daughter. All the time Valjean is still being pursued by that pesky inspector Javert. He lands in Paris amidst the revolution and must choose the best way to protect Cossette while trying to avoid Javert.
As this is a musical, and operatic one at that, so much of its success depends on how well the music is done. Much has been written about Hooper’s decision to record the singing live on the set as opposed to studio recording and lip-synching. My opinion is that this will be the new norm when it comes to movie-musicals. More than anything, it gives you the sense of being at a live performance and that is something that live theatre will always trump film with. But in having the actors sing live, we get the sense that these performances are so much more real. It aids us in suspending our disbelief of having dialogue sung at us, a common pitfall for movie-musicals.
How do they measure up? I’ll tell you now that Hugh Jackman’s Oscar nomination is well deserved. He delivers an emotionally draining performance while belting out some of the most known and beautiful music in theatre history. His counterpart, Russell Crowe, is less up to the task. It’s not that the notes are wrong, but there is no power behind them. I feel that Crowe simply needs more training on how to emote through song. At this point, he simply looks overmatched.
But the real revelation of the movie is Anne Hathaway. She delivers a Fantine that is so broken and so lost that we literally feel every ounce of her anguish as she descends lower and lower. In a year of Oscar uncertainties, I’d say she’s a pretty safe bet. Other stand-outs include Eddie Redmayne as revolutionary Marius and stage stars Samantha Barks as Eponine and Aaron Tveit as Enjorlas. The rest are all good enough, but nothing REALLY memorable comes from their performances.
Now, the movie isn’t perfect. It’s a very long 2 ½ hours and it feels that way. The story can drag down emotionally, the close-up camera work can get a little old and not every number is perfect (looking at you “Stars”). To those who tell me those reasons make this a bad movie, I say you are so wrong. There are precious few perfect movies. This one isn’t perfect, but it is damn good.
To take a musical as epic as Les Miserables and make it into a feature film is hard enough on its own. The fact that it lives up to its epic stage scale AND entertains at the same time is remarkable. Don’t believe those that tell you this movie isn’t worth your time. It is and you will not regret seeing it. Easily one of the ten best of the year.