Principal Cast : Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, Anne Hathaway, Helena Bonham Carter, Sacha Baron Cohen, Eddie Redmayne, Amanda Seyfried, Samantha Barks Isabelle Allen, Aaron Tveit, George Blagden, Hugh Skinner, Fra Fee, Natalya Angel Wallace, Daniel Huttlestone.
Synopsis: Former prisoner Jean Valjean flees his parole to begin a new life in post-Revolutionary France, pursued throughout his life by stalwart lawman Javert. After taking in a dying prostitute’s child and raising her as his own, Valjean sees her fall for a young student bound for confrontation against the Royal Army as they seek to once again bring revolution to France.
The Miserable Ones.
One of the most popular stage musicals in history, Les Misérables is a story that defines the term “epic”. Set over nearly 20 years, the story features character that traverse the depth of human poverty and depravity to remain true to themselves, transcending the dismal conditions of French life of the time, brutal regimes and harsh laws. While most people would be familiar with the stage version, which itself is based on Victor Hugo’s 1862 novel, the story of Les Misérables has been given the cinema treatment before. The first cinema version was released in 1932, and was also nominated for a Best Picture Oscar (like this version), while adaptions from 1998 (starring Liam Neeson as Valjean) and 2000’s TV movie (starring Gerard Depardieu as Valjean) at least kept the story itself in the public eye. I saw the ’98 version of Les Mis in cinemas – it was not a musical, I might add – and really enjoyed it, and ended up seeing an Australian stage production of it while in my late teens, so I have a minor appreciation for it as a story, even though I’m well aware of its status as a piece of literature. It’s not a story I relate to very often, mind you, but I appreciate the complexity of the characters and moral questions raised by the dark, often depressing narrative. So how about the 2012 version of Les Misérables? A musical on the big screen – something almost unheard of barely a decade ago, before films such as Moulin Rouge and Chicago took the world by storm and gave us back the big-screen song-and-dance genre – featuring several of Hollywood’s hottest talent and directed by a man best known for a film about a stuttering King; does the music and the song carry the import of the narrative across on the screen that gives the film the emotional weight to support nearly three hours of movie?
Hell to the yes.
Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) is a convict in the French prison system, and as the film opens, he’s finished serving his 19 years for stealing some bread to feed his starving family. He is goaded by Inspector Javert (Russell Crowe), a harsh and pernickety official who believes the law is absolute, and has no place for sentiment or emotion. Javert hands Valjean his parole papers, after which Valjean absconds to start a new life – he steals some silver from a local church, although the priest allows him to leave so long as he makes his second chance count for something. 9 Years later, Valjean has become a wealthy businessman and Mayor of Montreuil-sur-Mer. One of the female workers in his sewing factory, Fantine (Anne Hathaway) has a child she is trying to support – Cosette (Isabelle Allen) – but the factory foreman fires her with little hesitation when this information is brought to him. Desperate for money, Fantine journeys to the local docks, where she sells her hair and teeth for money, before being pimped into becoming a prostitute. Meanwhile, Javert arrives in Montreuil-sur-Mer to begin a new posting, although at first he does not recognize Valjean. It is only after a series of giveaway events that Valjean’s identity is exposed. Valjean meets Fantine and, on hear deathbed, he offers to take her daughter in as his own upon Fantine’s death. In order to do so, Valjean must rescue Cosette from a life of near-slavery at the hands of hoteliers, Master and Mistress Thenardier (Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter, respectively), who treat Cosette as vermin until Valjean arrives waving loads of cash. Valjean and Cosette flee into Paris, only managing to escape the pursuing Javert by moments. Another 9 years pass and Valjean and Cosette – now a young woman, played by Amanda Seyfried – are living in secret in Paris, where a new revolution is brewing. A group of students are about to try an overthrown the King, seeking a democratic France. One of the students, Marius (Eddie Redmayne) sees Cosette and they fall for each other instantly. However, the Thenardier’s teenage daughter, Eponine (Samantha Barks) is friends with Marius, and upon discovering the identity of Cosette, leaks this to her vile parents – who of course come knocking to steal more money from Valjean. As the threat of violence in the uprising increases, Valjean recognizes the love his adopted daughter has for Marius, and enters the fray to keep her beau alive so they can marry. But also trying to infiltrate the insurrection is Javert, now at a new posting again, and this once more brings him into the path of Valjean for a final confrontation.
Les Misérables is the kind of film I watch and think this is why I love film. It’s a pure story, a theatrical story that has themes of redemption, loss and struggle; at its heart, Les Misérables is utterly human, and portrays the very best and the very worst of our condition. Valjean is a moral man, although he sees the grey areas in life, while central antagonist Javert, only sees black and white. The story revolves primarily around Javert’s pursuit of Valjean through the years, with the duo butting ideologies every time they are together on-screen. The idea of forgiveness, the concept of love in the face of incredible adversity, is central to the themes of the story, and the 2012 film version offers this up as a core value in its screenplay. While not as Bohemian as Moulin Rouge, nor as visually optimistic as 2003’s Phantom of the Opera, Les Misérables is a remarkably inviting film to watch even in the face of some astoundingly destitute moments. Human tragedy has never been quite so raw as it is here.
And it’s no small thanks to the wonderful cast, none of whom put a foot wrong in terms of emotional impact they bring to the screen. Hugh Jackman absolutely nails the role of Valjean, his singing voice both strong and light when required, and his face a veritable tortured soul itself as he squeezes every nuance of heartache, sorrow and joy out of the most iconic role in theater. It’s probably the most un-Jackman-like performance I’ve seen from him so far. Russel Crowe, as his polar opposite in terms of actual singing power and character, is perhaps the films weakest voice, although in saying that he still does a commendable job at times – his rendition of “Stars”, for example, set against the backdrop of a nighttime Parisian skyline with the Notre Dame dominating the scene, is easily Crowe’s shining moment, and he delivers a bassy, powerful vocal performance that isn’t entirely bad – but it’s not up to the standard set by the remainder of this brilliant cast. Anne Hathaway is blistering in her portrayal of Fantine, a truly emotional performance that is heart-rending in its screen power and a lock for her Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination. A key moment, the performance of “I Dreamed A Dream”, sung in a single take in full close-up to camera, is searing indeed – Wikipedia’s quote on this song says: “The song is a lament, sung by the anguished, dying, and impoverished Fantine, who thinks back to happier days and wonders at all that has gone wrong in her life”, and never has a song been sung with such potent raw emotion as this one. It’s just a shame the song occurs so early in the film, for it leaves Hathaway with nowhere to go but down after that – Fantine passes away a few minutes later, and her reappearance is ghostly in nature towards the end of the movie, but this song and Hathaway’s performance of it are a masterclass in cinema acting.
For me, the surprise package comes not with the old stagers like Jackman and Crowe, but with the youngsters in the cast – Eddie Redmayne and Amanda Seyfried do exquisite jobs with their own material, Redmayne in particular having a delightfully alto voice, and having incredibly clear pitch, while Seyfried is excellent – albeit limited – in her portrayal of Cosette as an older girl. Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter are a delight to watch as the Thenardiers, as they slink and slide their way through the film as the most despicable kind of human trash. Who knew Cohen could sing like he does here? Not me, certainly. “Master of the House” was always my favorite number from the musical, and it’s been delivered with a deliciously sly wit here. Samantha Barks, as Eponine, is wonderful, although this is to be expected considering her extensive career playing the character on the stage, although several of the songs from the stage musical have been modified (or removed altogether) for the film. Barks has a decent film career ahead of her if she so chooses (please choose this, Ms Barks) and I though she was wonderful.
The success of this film is in no way attributable to director Tom Hooper. The man seems to direct this film like a television movie, lacking grace throughout the more “epic” moments of the film – the rebellion by the students in particular comes across as haphazard and almost confusing in its execution – and having an editorial style that jars against the visual framework of the production. It’s like he’s trying to carve an MTV musical from a story that simply isn’t. He’s no Baz Luhrmann, that’s for sure, and although I think Hooper’s direction lacks punch at times, the cast somehow carry the film through in spite of itself. Some of Hooper’s directorial decisions are excellent – a number of the musical numbers occur within a single take, often elaborately so – and his use of visual effects to extend the city of Paris and the country of France beyond what was achieved within the camera on set is terrific, but there’s a paucity of creative strength behind the camera that more often than not makes the film feel… smaller than it should. Often, particularly towards the climactic moments of the film, the action beats tend to overwhelm Hooper’s visual propensity for subtlety, and occur in a jagged, almost discombobulating collision of ideas and ability. Les Misérables is an amazing film in spite of Hooper, not because of him. For this reason alone, I cannot award the film a 10-star grade.
One of the key elements that makes this film work is the subtle (and not-so-subtle) changes from the well-known stage version that Hooper and William Nicholson’s script produces. While I’m not a die-hard fan of the show like many, a quick Google of differences between this film and the stage musical indicate a Peter Jackson-like massaging of the overall structure to make it seem more naturalistic: Jackson rearranged some of Tolkien’s Lord Of The Rings text to ensure that elements of story matched correctly, and so to does Nicholson’s screenplay here. Songs are shortened, moved around, even sung by different characters in some parts, while an entirely new song, “Suddenly”, performed by Valjean, doesn’t quite fit into the movie like the rest of the material – the song is the film’s attempt to snag an Oscar for Best Original Song. As mentioned, I’d loved to have seen some sort of way of keeping Hathaway’s role in the film more prominent, perhaps via the use of flashbacks of Valjean telling Cosette how her mother lived and died, as Fantine’s sudden reappearance at the conclusion of the film (after being written out about forty minutes in) is a little jarring considering we’re never introduced to “ghosts” in the context of this film previously. It’s this little stuff that I wanted to see smoothed out, and it wasn’t – but on the whole, Nicholson’s screenplay and maneuvering of the story to fit within a cinematic context is excellent.
Les Misérables is the kind of film that makes me thankful to be a critic (even if it’s of an amateur status!) because I, we – you and I – get to watch this kind of thing and fall hard for the magic of the medium. Cinema is designed to transport us to another time, another world, another frame of mind, and Les Misérables is the very foundation of transportation in this sense – the grime, poverty and sorrow of the story, as well as the now-iconic songs and characters, are all perfectly attuned to a cinematic telling. Indeed, the music alone is a draw to see this for me, and I’m pleased to say that on the whole I was utterly astonished at how things turned out. From Jackman and Hathaway down to the ensemble chorus of student rebels, the cast produce performances out of their skins, ensuring the production has a sizzle and a punch that overcomes Tom Hooper’s frantically mediocre direction. As a story, it’s the kind of thing that breaks your heart with its tragedy (consider this: both Les Misérables and Phantom of The Opera are tragic stories borne of French literature – what does that say about French literature, eh?) and as a film, it’s a powerful example of volcanic, dynamite performances delivering searing, indelible visual moments that are a veritable buffet table of great, Oscar-worthy work. Les Misérables might be about “the miserable ones”, but its definitely one of the greatest of all musical films to come out of Hollywood, perhaps ever. It’s a film every fan, and every fan of film, should have in their collection. Watch it, soak it up, and love it.