160 Mins. Dir. By: Tom Hooper with,
Hugh Jackman, Anne Hathaway and Russell Crowe
There are few stories better known than that of Les Misérables. If you never saw it on stage, you’ve seen some iteration of the classic tale, even if you didn’t realize it was the source. Adhering to the classic stage presentation of an operatic style musical with only two lines of spoken dialogue, Les Misérables doesn’t house elaborate dance routines along with its music, an assumption unsuspecting minds might believe is an irremovable feature of the genre. With the ability to impress any type of viewer in one form or another, it’s the Les Misérables fan base that will shower this ambitious re-telling with the highest praise.
Encompassing the lives of many unfortunate souls spanning decades in 1800s France, Les Misérables wraps its massive tale around the turbulent battle between two men, Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) and Police Inspector Javert (Russell Crowe). Breaking his parole after serving an inordinate amount of time imprisoned for the act of stealing bread, Valjean receives aide from an unlikely source that even confounds his own troubled mind. Understanding he’s finally been given a chance at redemption, Valjean recreates himself as a new man; popping up years later as Monsier Madeleine, the town Mayor of Montreuil-sur-Mer. Under insurmountable circumstances, Valjean comes in direct contact with Javert who under his own doubts, buys into the fact that Madeleine is not Valjean. Quickly, the truth becomes obvious as Javert continues his single minded hunt of Valjean across France. Changing his name yet again, Valjean’s need to help those he fears his actions have destroyed brings him closer and closer to meeting Javert again. Valjean understands he needs to pay for his mistakes still, but the worlds of Valjean and Javert affect each other in ways neither man fully understands.
Sweeping in from the clouds above Valjean and his abused chain gang, Les Misérables kicks off with a distasteful note of flimsy CGI, but swiftly redeems itself when the grand scale visuals pop into a ground level framing. Drab and dreary throughout, Les Misérables finds ways to burst a lush visual experience through pouring rain, damp mists, and blinding snows. Shooting through the torrential downpour of the film’s opening, the only vivid colors to break through that brownish plane are the bright blues of Javert’s uniform and the bloodshot crimson of Valjean’s eyes. Director Tom Hooper made careful use of the visual strengths film has over live theatre to cut out its characters’ auras and film them as standouts amongst the dire nature of the world around them. What Hooper creates is 3D without the idea of forcing a third axis to affect the viewer’s vision, but still playing with their perceptions. Like many theatre productions that recreate unimaginable, yet tangible sets for the stage; Les Misérables uses its color palette to draw the audience into a world they’ve seen on the screen before.
Though Les Misérables started as a novel by the well-known Victor Hugo and has a long history of dramatic versions, it’s the music and style of (Sir) Cameron Mackintosh’s London production that Americans came to know and love from its importation to Broadway that has resonated so strongly with audiences over the years. The most daring and ambitious take of this film version of the stage production is that the vocals were all recorded live. Unlike most musical films in which actors lip-sync to their previously recorded studio performances, Hooper had his actors sing live on the spot. Each cast member was provided with an earpiece that pumped in the main piano lines and actors had to hit their marks while belting out the tunes. Granted, if you’re a stage performer in the role of Valjean, you are signing and hitting your marks on stag every day, sometimes twice a day. In the film world though, actors are, at times, surrounded by a more dangerous environment than the stage of a Broadway theatre and to camera cuts. The cast of Les Misérables may have all shot long takes, performing through sections that cut away from them, but they still used multiple takes for each scene. Attempting to perfectly match the intensity and tone of your singing voice across several, different takes is much different and leagues more difficult than maintaining your traditional speaking voice or an accent across a similar shooting period.
Even if you never have, or just find it impossible to connect with the story of Les Misérables, the music is, frankly, infectious. Many people are familiar with the somewhat inconsequential, but highly entertaining, tune, “Master of the House;” but there is much more on offer here. The expansive visuals and largescale presentation add new depths to the thrice reprised “Look Down;” a song whose reprisal takes on a different meaning each time it pops up. The transformation of he meaning of “Look Down” as the musical progresses is a recognizable feature of the stage show, but it takes on new meaning for me as a viewer this time, on film. I’m personally not as easily affected by the song structure of the tragic, romantic ballads, but they will strike a chord with the Les Misérables faithful. It will be interesting to see the sales number comparisons between beloved cast recordings of the London and Broadway stage productions and the film’s soundtrack. I don’t feel this film will spark any arguments between fans over which vocal performances or orchestral arrangements are better (after all Anne Hathaway was 3 years old when Patti LuPone was Cossette – and Colm Wilkinson is, well, Colm Wilkinson; not that we would ever dream of casting even half an aspersion in the general direction of Hugh Jackman), but watching fans vote with their purchases of one over the other in sales should be worth a look.
Casting an array of proven stage/musical singers, no one bats an eye at seeing the likes of Hugh Jackman and Anne Hathaway at top billing. Thinking about everyone involved in the film, you can point to a history of musical productions they’ve been a part of, even if it was just one. Still, a lot of people have already asked me if Russell Crowe is able to sing. Yes, I can’t point to a stage or film production Crowe has been a part of where I remember him singing, but people seem to easily forget that Crowe fronts a rock band (30 Odd Foot of Grunts). He has a voice and it comes naturally, though my one complaint is that his delivery is a little more on the rock side than what should be described as more traditionally operatic.
The entire cast performs at great heights through their singing characters and yet again, Anne Hathaway takes the cake. Most of the film didn’t affect me emotionally, but when Cossette’s hair is cut off Ms. Hathaway makes this face (albeit a slightly exaggerated face) that just tore at my heart and brought tears to my eyes. And we would be remiss not to mention the fact that Anne Hathaway’s hair was, in fact, shorn right to her scalp during the filming of that scene. Now THAT is going the extra mile for your craft. The only complaint I have about the cast is Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter. Both Cohen and Carter turn in fine performances, but theywere ultimately cast in the same exact roles they had in Sweeney Todd, which doesn’t allow them to really shine in new ways.
The music of Les Misérables keeps the lengthy film moving at a decent pace. The entire film starts to drag a little as the impending revolution becomes a real threat, but the tempo of the music makes time move at a different rate than your typical drama. Audiences with no knowledge of the story or no interest in musicals will find parts of Les Misérables that will impress them, but fans of the stage show will be pleased and moved to tears by the final product. So if you are a known crier and true believer fan of Les Misérables, don’t sit down without having your tissues at the ready.
If you see this movie and are newly converted to Les Misérables and would like to be transported with joy by its music again may we suggest you immediately purchase the Blu-Ray of the Les Misérables 25th Anniversary Concert at the O2 auditorium in London here: Les Miz 25th O2