When it became public knowledge that there was going to be another film adaptation of Les Miserables, many were pessimistic about the task of putting one of the world’s most beloved musicals properly onto the silver screen. However, director Tom Hooper — who recently won an Academy Award for The King’s Speech in 2011 — fundamentally understands and communicates the tragedy and beauty of the stage musical while grounding the film in the gritty realism of the 19th century setting of Victor Hugo’s novel.
For those who have never seen Les Miserables, it is a musical that contains scarcely any plain dialogue, posing a serious challenge for film actors. Harder still, Hooper decided that instead of recording the singing in a studio and syncing the audio, the actors would have to sing the songs live to the camera. This makes Les Miserables easily one of the most ambitiously filmed musicals of all time and it delivers on just about every level.
From the opening sequence of Les Miserables, the absolutely immense scale of the task undertaken by Hooper is clear. The film opens in the shipyards of Toulon where the film’s protagonist, Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman), is serving the final day of his 19-year sentence for a petty theft. The shot of the galleys being pulled into the shipyard grabs the audience and introduces them to the dingy 19th century world that they will become familiar with over the course of the film.
The film follows the life of Jean, throughout his various incarnations, as he attempts to escape his past life as a criminal. Jackman plays Jean brilliantly in all facets of the performance — he expertly communicates Jean’s courage and strength alongside his generosity, tenderness and vulnerability. Jean is relentlessly pursued by Javert (Russell Crowe), a prison guard turned police inspector with a troubled past. While it is true that Crowe’s vocals are woefully inadequate when compared to other members of the cast, his acting is strong. Crowe would have been perfectly casted as Javert, if Javert was not required to sing the vast majority of his lines. The singing clearly does not come naturally to Crowe, whereas Jackman and the rest of the cast are able to blend their acting into their songs with significantly more success.
Later in his life, Jean adopts a daughter, Cosette (Amanda Seyfried), upon the dying wish of the derelict Fantine (Anne Hathaway), a former employee of Jean. Despite Jackman’s stellar performance throughout the film, the most memorable character of Les Miserables is undoubtedly Hathaway’s Fantine.
Though only present for roughly the first third of the film, the pathos of Fantine’s character is gut-wrenchingly clear. On the strength of Hathaway’s hauntingly beautiful rendition of “I Dreamed a Dream,” she deserves Oscar consideration for best supporting actress.
As comic relief, the Thenardiers are played by Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter, who were perfectly selected for their roles. Cohen’s playful energy is a welcome reprieve from the dense and often morose storyline.
Cosette and Jean later move to Paris, where Cosette falls in love with Marius Pontmercy (Eddie Redmayne), a politically active student in a bourgeois Parisian family. Here the film culminates in the failed 1832 June Rebellion in Paris and the struggle at the barricades constructed by revolutionary students, including Marius.
Les Miserables is an example of a cinematic risk paying off. It would have been far too easy for Hooper to simply film a gorgeous epic with crystal clear vocals, produced and refined in a Hollywood studio. The visually appealing but substantively deficient The Phantom of the Opera fell prey to this syndrome in 2004. However, Les Miserables is a darker, grimier and more authentic interpretation with outstanding individual performances and stunning cinematography. Hooper swung for the fence with Les Miserables and has produced a film that both purists and newcomers will surely enjoy.