Haters of movie musicals everywhere, I beseech you! Give this one a chance! Lovers of this musical, unite! The movie is a blast!
For me, Les Misérables, based on the Victor Hugo novel set in 19th century France has always been the epitome of big show musical done right. When I saw it on Broadway, I remember thinking something along the lines of “No way in hell anybody could ever put this on the big screen in respectable fashion. It’s too big, and it’s too hard.”
To mount a production worthy of the musical, you would need a big budget, and you would need big stars with box office allure that can sing like no other. I’m happy to report that director Tom Hooper found stars that can not only sing, but make you freaking cry when they sing. They are that good.
Hooper (The King’s Speech) gathered his glorious cast, and then he went and made things even more complicated. The actors and actresses in this muscular musical sing live on set. No comfy sound booths with fancy mineral waters, conveniently prerecording songs for lip-synching. What you see and hear in this movie is the product of live takes.
And it’s absolutely remarkable. Hugh Jackman in the central role of notorious bread thief Jean Valjean is more than Oscar worthy—his work here requires an Oscar. His physical presence is appropriately commanding, and his voice is miraculous. This is a role that could turn to schmaltz instantly in the wrong hands. Rest assured that what you’re seeing from Jackman here is one of musical cinema history’s greatest, most uncompromising performances.
Shockingly, his is not the best performance in the movie. That honor goes to one Anne Hathaway as Fantine, the betrayed factory worker turned prostitute desperately trying to care for daughter Cosette (played by the sweetly voiced Isabelle Allen as a child). Hathaway delivers “I Dreamed a Dream” in one devastatingly beautiful take that will drop many a jaw into many a lap.
No doubt, some will point to Russell Crowe’s Javert as the film’s weak link, and in some ways it is. Crowe’s voice doesn’t compare to the likes of Jackman and Hathaway, but I submit that his diminished vocals help make his Javert more pathetic.
Javert, the dogged lawman who destroys his life unrelentingly pursuing the fugitive Valjean, has long been a literary loser, and Crowe brings a marked sadness to him. The fact that his voice isn’t so grand just makes his Javert lonelier and bleaker. I was expecting something more booming for Javert, but this interpretation grew on me. Admittedly, it took a second viewing for me to gain more appreciation for Crowe’s efforts.
Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter are appropriately disgusting as innkeepers Thenardier and Madame Thenardier. Amanda Seyfried, after the failure of Mamma Mia!, gets to put her capable voice to a better test as the grown Cosette, while Eddie Redmayne (My Week with Marilyn) gives a breakthrough performance as her suitor, Marius.
The coveted role of Eponine, for which Taylor Swift was once rumored, has gone to Samantha Barks, who was featured in the acclaimed Les Misérables in Concert: The 25th Anniversary. Hooper made the right choice here. Her rendition of “A Little Fall of Rain” qualifies as the best I’ve heard, and I’ve heard a few.
Hooper does more than put a bunch of great actors and voices in play. His staging of the musical is superbly accomplished. When Daniel Huttlestone emerges from a huge elephant statue and delivers “Paris/Look Down” from the back of a moving horse carriage, it’s pure movie magic. The costuming, art direction and sets are all impeccable. The movie has a gigantic scale that looks as great as it sounds.
Les Misérables is so much more than a worthy adaptation of a long cherished musical. It’s a masterful game changer when it comes to movie musicals. I could go on and on about how great it is. My words of praise can’t possibly do it justice. See it, and see why it puts many past movie musical to shame.