Set in 19th Century France, during the long and tumultuous French Revolution, Victor Hugo’s novel is brought to the silver screen in Tom Hooper’s “Les Miserables.” Hooper recreates the story using the English libretto written by Claude-Michel Schönberg (music) and Herbert Kretzmer (lyrics) which spawned one of the most successful stage musicals in the history of modern theater. It was a monstrous feat to transform this beloved musical to the big screen and for the most part Hooper has been successful.
In “Les Miserables,” Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) has finally reached parole after serving a near 20 year sentence for stealing bread for his sister’s child. Put on parole, he is marked as a violent man and finds it difficult to find any form of work. Lost in a world that he has no control of, he finds comfort in the home of a Bishop (Colm Wilkinson) that feeds the weary Valjean and offers him a place to sleep. Valjean repays the man’s kindness by stealing the majority of the man’s silver. When caught and brought back to the Bishop, it is the Bishop that sides with Valjean and hands him a pair of candlesticks. When the police leave the Bishop tell Valjean that he has just bought his soul and that he must now learn to be law-abiding citizen. At this point Valjean tears up his parole papers and reinvents himself.
Valjean becomes a businessman and mayor. Under his employment is Fantine (Anne Hathaway). She is working in one of his factories. She is a single-mother that has her child Cosette living with a inn-keeper and his wife and every dollar she earns is sent to care for her child Cosette (Isabelle Allen). When a fight breaks out between Fantine and one of the other workers, she is tossed out into the street. Fantine’s life quickly unravels as she tries just about anything to survive. She become very ill and when Valjean comes upon her on the street accused of accosting a man, Valjean takes her to the hospital and starts searching for Cosette. When Fantine dies, Valjean finds Cosette and raises her as his own.
Knowing that Javert is never far from finding them, Valjean and Cosette find a new home in a convent. This is where Cosette is raised in a simple, yet loving environment. As Cosette (Amanda Seyfried) reaches adulthood the French Revolution gears up and Cosette finds herself falling in love with freedom fighter Marius (Eddie Redmayne). And at this time Valjean and Javert meet again in surprising circumstances, and Valjean comes to terms that Cosette has fallen in love. With war waging in Paris, who can survive and will Valjean ever be free of Javert?
“Les Miseralbes” is a very good movie despite the fact that Russell Crowe was completely and totally not well-equipped vocally to play the role of Javert. Having to be personally fortunate to see the stage production several times, Javert must possess a strong presence, which includes a strong singing voice to match. With the high budget of “Les Miserables,” it is most likely that the casting of the Academy Award winner Crowe was insisted upon by Universal. But Crowe’s performance is just not to the standard of the other performers.
“Les Miserables” is an unusual musical in that there are no spoken dialogue, and to be successful it is of utmost importance that a strong energy from scene to scene must be sustained, and this is where Hooper lacked in my opinion. Especially in the middle of the film, the movie was unable to sustain the energy and even the funny scenes in “Master of the House” seemed lacking. Had the scenes been edited better together, perhaps the energy of the film would have been better as well. Thankfully, The last third of the film was the best and had a higher energy.
Now, the stuff I loved. No doubt “Les Miserables” will get noticed at Oscar time for the art and craft departments. Watch for the film to be given notice for the amazing costumes that included Cosette’s lacey wedding dress in comparison the a legion of military costumes that were detailed to the point that you could see the stitching on Russell Crowe’s hat. Art Direction and set decoration also help give the film its authenticity along with the plethora of makeup and hair style applications that adorned the stars and large cast of supporting actors.
Since most of the music is not original to the film, “Les Miserables” will not get any attention for the score, but watch for the new song added to the film “Suddenly” sung by Hugh Jackman to get an Oscar nod. Also musicals are known to get added attention in the sound departments as well as war films. Although this isn’t a big war film, musket fire along with continuous musical sounds give “Les Miserables” a good chance of snatching at least one sound award.
Hugh Jackman as Valjean was surprisingly good and very well-suited for the role. His renditions of “Who Am I” and “Bring Him Home” featured his beautiful tenor voice. Colm Wilkinson was a nice surprise playing the Bishop, he stared as Valjean in the Broadway production and he is as vocally gifted as many years ago. Anne Hathaway did a fine job as Fantine, and even though her song “I Dreamed a Dream” had been rolled out in trailers, seeing the full performance was indeed even better and more heartfelt than expected. Young Cosette was perfectly cast with Isabelle Allen and her performance of “Castle on a Cloud” was flawless.
I enjoyed Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter as the innkeeper and his wife, but they could of dialed up the outrageous even more. Cohen missed some opportunities with “Master of the House,” paying more attention to the rhythm of the song than the outlandish lyrics that could have really be emphasized even more.
By far my favorite part of the film was when we see the grown-up Cosette played by Amanda Seyfried. She has a beautiful lyrical voice that captures the youth and innocence of Cosette magnificently. Her young love Marius deftly played by Eddie Redmayne was equally as good as Seyfriend. I especially enjoyed his emotional performance of “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables.” Notable also is the love triangle between Marius, Cosette and Éponine played by Samantha Barks. She had played the role of Éponine on the London Stage and in the 25th Anniversary Concert of “Les Miserables.” The layered trio parts between the three actors were just beautifully done.
All the actors who played in the barricade scenes were fabulous, including Aaron Tveit as Enjolras little Daniel Huttlestone as the feisty Gavroche. And the ending scene with the cast singing “Do You Hear the People Sing?” is a wonderful ending.
“Les Miserables” has gotten a lot of attention for the process of the film. Most musicals set down the musical track, vocal included, in a sound stage before filming of the movie begins. Hooper decided to give the actor free reign with the music and all of the songs were sung on set during production with the orchestration added in post-production. Now there is an interview of Anne Hathaway describing this process and claiming that this process had never been done before, which is just wrong. But it is likely to be the most successful job of allowing the actors to set the pace and emotion for each song. I thought for the most part that this worked well for the film.
“Les Miserables” may have a funny sounding name and be set in a time that most Americans know little about, but the themes of redemption and one’s desire to be worthy to God are still themes that are worth pursuing today. Now with the film adaptation the beautiful music that brought people in droves to the theaters in the 1980’s will now be able to reach a new generation of fans.
“Les Miserables” is rated PG-13 for suggestive and sexual material, violence and thematic elements of 2 hours and 37 minutes.
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-Kay Shackleton is a film historian with special focus on Silent Films, see her work at SilentHollywood.com