It seems like everyone is always saying how difficult it is to adapt a Broadway musical into a film. And it is difficult, but there’s probably no show more difficult to do that with than “Les Miserables”. Based on the novel by Victor Hugo, the stage show is now almost thirty years old, and features numerous characters, plot lines, and no spoken dialogue, but various directors and producers have been trying to make a big screen adaptation for years. Now, Academy Award winning director Tom Hooper has done that, but with mixed results.
The story opens in France in 1815, where, years after the French Revolution, another ruthless king sits on the country’s throne. Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) is released from a brutal prison sentence on parole, all for stealing a loaf of bread. Still, police officer Javert (Russell Crowe) vows to hunt down Valjean if he breaks parole, which he does, using newfound wealth to become a factory owner.
Then Valjean meets Fantine (Anne Hathaway), a woman fired from his factory who is struggling to make money to care for her young daughter Cosette, who lives with an innkeeper and his wife (Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter). Valjean, knowing he did nothing to prevent her losing her job, vows to care for Cosette. But, as a revolution led by the people grows stronger, Valjean must be constantly on the run from Javert, who is always searching for him.
The film also features performances from Amanda Seyfried as an older Cosette, Eddie Redmayne as Marius, the young man who is a leader of the revolution and who falls in love with Cosette, and Samantha Barks as Eponine, the girl who loves Marius but knows he will never be hers. They are all surprisingly wonderful. Many filmmakers, when making a big-screen musical, go for well-known names above singing talent, but in this case, the cast is filled with well-known names and they are all great singers, particularly Hathaway and Seyfried, who nail their solos beautifully. Crowe is the only one whose voice has some difficultly with the material, but he never falters in his performance; he is such a believable actor that in the end it doesn’t really matter.
Jackman is stunning as Valjean, his best performance of his career by far. Hathaway is also great in her supporting role; even though at times her acting feels a tad over-exaggerated, her heart-breaking performance of “I Dreamed a Dream” is the highlight of the film. Cohen and Carter’s characters are goofy but they work somehow, giving an otherwise serious and very sad story some much-needed comic relief.
Part of the reason why the actors were able to give such heart-felt performances in a film that has singing only—there is very little to no spoken dialogue, as in the stage show—is the unique way Hooper filmed it. Rather than having the actors record their songs and then lip-sync them during filming, everyone sang live on the set, allowing them to concentrate less on matching their mouth to the words and more on actually acting. Amazingly, it works—no one’s voice falters or fades in and out as one might expect.
Perhaps the film’s biggest flaw is its cinematography. The sets look cheap; whether Hooper was going for realism or something that looked more like a set you’d find on a stage I don’t know, but while at times it works at others it just looks bad. Take, for instance, the opening shot, in which the prisoners are hauling up a fallen ship. A scene that should have been epic just comes off as fake. Furthermore, Hooper seems to be very fond of close-ups, something unusual for a musical. He lingers on these close-ups often as the actors sing their solos, and they aren’t framed well at all, often drifting in and out of the frame as they sing. During an intense conversation it might be okay, but while singing a big, emotional song, it just feels claustrophobic.
Is “Les Miserables” one of the best movies of the year? I probably wouldn’t put it in my top five, but it’s good, good enough that some of its imperfections can be ignored, especially considering what an ambitious project this is. But while I’m sure Hooper’s film is relatively faithful to the original musical, I get the feeling I’d rather see that instead.
Runtime: 157 minutes. Rated PG-13 for suggestive and sexual material, violence and thematic elements.
Check out showtimes for this movie and more at the following St. Louis-area theaters:
- Wehrenberg Theatres
- AMC Theatres
- Regal Movie Theatres
- Galleria 6
- Chase Park Plaza
- Granite City
- Moolah Theatre
- Hi-Pointe Theatre
- St. Andrews Cinema
- Plaza Frontenac Cinema
- Tivoli Theatre
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