Les Miserables, the long-running and renowned stage play based on the classic novel by Victor Hugo, was created in the early 1980s. It’s surprising that, given the play’s lasting appeal, a full-fledged film adaptation has taken so long to make its way to the screen. Now, director Tom Hooper (The King’s Speech) has stepped up to take the task, and the result is quite good.
Taking place in France in the 1800s, the story mainly revolves around former prisoner Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman), who has been released on parole after several years for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his starving family. After a priest shows him an act of kindness, Valjean decides to ignore his parole and start a new life for himself, and several years later, is a successful businessman running a factory. When Fantine (Anne Hathaway), one of his workers, loses her job and resorts to prostitution, he takes pity on her. After she falls ill, he vows to find and take care of her daughter Cosette (Isabelle Allen).
Several years after that, Valjean and an older Cosette (Amanda Seyfried) become involved in a revolution by the citizens regarding the government’s treatment towards the poor. Among the rebels is Marius (Eddie Redmayne), who soon falls in love with Cosette. As the violence escalates, Valjean must also be wary of the ever-present officer Javert (Russell Crowe), who is still on the lookout for him.
All of this is told in the form of a musical. And when I say musical, I don’t mean a film that breaks into song every five or ten minutes. Almost all the dialog here is delivered lyrically. If this type of approach throws you off, you probably aren’t going to be able to enjoy this movie very much. On the other hand, if you’re like me and know about it ahead of time, it shouldn’t be much of a problem.
It also helps that the songs are generally excellent. Many are loud and dramatic, some have a comedic edge (Sacha Baron Cohen & Helena Bonham Carter as Cosette’s foster paarents supply most of the comic relief), and others are very emotional. Hathaway’s rendition of “I Dreamed a Dream” in the first act is especially impressive. I had heard good things about it beforehand, but didn’t know that it was all done in one uninterrupted take. There’s also thankfully not a bad singer among the cast. I had heard some lukewarm reactions to Crowe as Javert, but thought he brought gravitas to his character and voice.
The film also has a good sense of scope. It opens on an epic note with Valjean and a chain gang towing a ship, contains some tense moments in the last act as the revolution goes to battle, and successfully evokes the feelings of poverty and harsh conditions the streets of France experienced at the time. The film has a genuine atmosphere to it that really sucks you in.
If I have to complain about anything, I’d say certain parts could have been shot a bit better. I felt that too often Hooper resorted to the old “shaky-cam” technique of someone holding a camera and not keeping it steady for livelier scenes, and early on, the editing felt a bit erratic, with each shot jumping ahead in an awkard manner. Thankfully, the latter problem goes away pretty quickly.
Les Miserables is top-notch, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it eventually becomes regarded as a classic film musical as the years pass. I saw it with my mother, who has seen the play performed by various groups several times and owns the Broadway version’s soundtrack, and she described herself as overwhelmed with love for the film when it was over. If you hate musicals or can’t stand period pieces, maybe you should stay away. For everyone else, this is definitely worth a watch.