Director: Tom Hooper
Stars: Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, Anne Hathaway
Plot: A French convict, Jean Valjean, breaks his parole and is subsequently hunted for years by the ruthless Javert. When he decides to care for the daughter of one of his factory workers, both their lives are changed forever.
Victor Hugo’s 1862 novel Les Misérables has been transformed from its literary origin to one of the most enduring and popular musical of modern times. Following numerous adaptations for television, film and most famously on stage, Les Mis gets the big screen treatment once again, only this time under the tutelage of Tom Hooper, who directed the utterly sublime The King’s Speech. With a terrific cast also on board, here was yet another movie version, but would this one supersede everything that had gone before and live up to its 150-year-old hype?
In 1815, convict Jean Valjean (Jackman) is finally released on parole by prison guard Javert (Crowe), having served a nineteen-year sentence. Valjean however, is bound by the terms of his release that he must carry papers with him for life that state that he is a dangerous man. As a consequence, Valjean finds it impossible to find a job or lodgings due to his status, but finds solace with the Bishop of Digne (Colm Wilkinson). He tries to steal the clergyman’s silver and disappear into the night but when he is apprehended, the bishop takes pity on him, stating that it was a gift. Valjean is moved by this gesture and, tearing up his parole papers, swears to live an honest life, helping others under a new identity. Meanwhile, Javert resolves to track down the elusive fugitive and bring him to justice.
Eight years later we rejoin Valjean who has now become the mayor of Montreuil-sur-Mer and the owner of a factory where one of the workers, Fantine (Anne Hathaway) is dismissed by a foreman when it is revealed she is sending money to her illegitimate daughter Cosette (Isabelle Allen), who lives with dubious couple the Thénardiers (Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter) and their daughter Éponine (Natalya Angel Wallace). Fantine becomes a prostitute in a desperate attempt to provide for Cosette, but is attacked by an abusive man against whom she defends herself. Javert appears, intending to arrest Fantine, but Valjean steps in and pledges to take care of her. At the hospital, Valjean promises Fantine that he will look after Cosette, a decision which leads Valjean on a path towards redemption during one of the most tumultuous periods in French history.
It’s a well-known fact that the best songs are written with pain, suffering or heartache in mind – the soundtrack of Les Misérables is a true testament to that. Perhaps the most famous of these, I Dreamed a Dream (which up until then remained the preserve of Elaine Paige), was projected into the consciousness of the uninitiated by Susan Boyle’s BGT audition and consequently raised the profile of Victor Hugo’s novel and the musical in general. Les Mis is the complete antithesis to films like High School Musical or Mamma Mia! due to its very dark nature, dealing with death, revenge, social injustice and the anguish of desperate people in desperate times – but this is very much to its advantage and makes the film all the more involving and totally captivating. With all the actors singing ‘live’ with an earpiece for company, the result is a very natural substitute for dialogue (even though there are a few spoken lines here and there). From the very beginning as a ship is hauled into port by a group of convicts under the watchful eye of a ruthless prison guard, you know instantly that this is going to be literally one hell of an experience.
Where any production of Les Misérables succeeds or fails is in the casting of the main protagonist, Jean Valjean. Hugh Jackman really brings the character to life in his flawless portrayal. As a seasoned veteran of the stage, he certainly draws on all his experience to deliver a performance certainly worthy of an Oscar nomination for Best Actor. Virtually unrecognisable beneath a long beard, Jackman’s opening few scenes which culminate in Valjean tearing up his draconian documents can be considered your entry fee to the cinema already paid back in full. However, what follows is a truly extraordinary tour de force in acting, direction and adaptation. Anne Hathaway deserves a great deal of the plaudits for her role as the tragic Fantine – her version of I Dreamed a Dream is sung exactly as it should be, with no auto-tuning or gloss – just raw, unadulterated emotion. There has been some criticism of Russell Crowe’s singing, but this is particularly harsh – he makes a very good Javert and while his voice might sound a little gruff, this is inevitable next to Jackman, with whom he shares the vast majority of his scenes. Not to mention the great supporting cast, which includes Sacha Baron Cohen, Helena Bonham Carter, Eddie Redmayne but also Samantha Barks, whose grown-up Éponine is one of the highlights.
Les Misérables will be well represented at the Academy Awards and it’s easy to see why. Fantastic songs, excellent acting and top-notch directing from Tom Hooper make this film a must-see. Here is a classic example of how to utilise the cinema screen for the wide shots and close-ups, that aren’t possible in the theatre, to wonderful effect. Make no mistake, the title says it all with very little in the way of mirth, but don’t let that put you off what is a magnificent film which marks a very important watershed in the musical genre.