It’s hard to believe that merely two years ago most people were hearing the name of director Tom Hooper for the first time. At the time his smash hit “The King’s Speech” was released, he was mainly known as the man behind the excellent “John Adams” and “Elizabeth I” miniseries. When his name entered the Oscar race, most thought that he didn’t stand much of a chance. However, they were soon proven wrong when the film turned out to be just as big a hit with the Academy as it was with audiences.
With an Oscar to his name, he then had the freedom to choose pretty much whatever film he wanted to do next, leading him to pick a passion project, an ambitious adaptation of the popular musical “Les Misérables.” The result is not only one of the best musical adaptations to come along in the last few years, but also the best film of 2012.
Taking place in France 26 years after the start of the French Revolution, the film revolves around multiple characters, but primarily Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman), a recently-freed convict who has served 19 years of slavery under the watch of Inspector Javert (Russell Crowe) for stealing a loaf of bread and trying to escape. Being branded a thief makes his life extremely difficult, causing him to be turned away from nearly everyone he asks for help. However, under the care of a kindly bishop, Valjean is born again, changing his ways (and his name) so that he might live a better life.
Over the years, he becomes a wealthy man and the owner of a factory where we meet Fantine (Anne Hathaway), a young woman who is cruelly tossed out onto the street by the foreman. Out of desperation in trying to care for her young child, she turns to prostitution, an occupation that only leads to her getting into trouble. Luckily, Valjean is there at the right time to rescue her, which leads to him making a promise to care for her young girl, Cosette. However, we find out that, even after all these years, he is still being pursued by Inspector Javert for having broken his parole all those years ago.
Several years later still, the revolution has once again begun to stir. We find Valjean and Cosette (Amanda Seyfried) together, but still on the run from Javert, a part of Valjean’s past that she has no knowledge of. At this point, we meet Marius (Eddie Redmayne), a revolutionary who happens to meet Cosette one night, falling instantly in love with her, and she with him. Upon discovery of this, Valjean begins to enact a plan that could help ensure his adoptive daughter’s rescue from a life of solitude with him.
“Les Misérables” is a musical that is extremely rich with fascinating characters. You have Valjean, who is trying to escape his past by becoming a born-again man. The antagonist, Javert, is someone who is unable to escape the past, becoming relentlessly obsessed with tracking down Valjean in the name of justice, despite the crime being very small. Fantine does everything she can to provide for her child, but keeps getting the worst breaks that life has to offer.
Even amid the turmoil of revolution, the characters are still able to develop with their own personal stories. True love blooms between Marius and Cosette despite the two only seeing each other for a few minutes. This love continues to blossom as they are separated, supplying one of the emotional cornerstones of the musical. All of these characters contribute to the grand emotion that this story has to offer, an emotion that never feels disingenuous due to the outstanding performances from the ensemble cast.
There have been a few complaints that have said how actors were hired for the film instead of singers. However, this statement needs a bit of correction. These are actors who are singers, fulfilling their roles perfectly. It was already well-known that Hugh Jackman could sing, having done so on stage multiple times. His Valjean is an emotionally fragile man, making difficult decisions early on and then devoting himself anew to caring for another.
One of the big question marks leading up to the film was the casting of Russell Crowe as Inspector Javert. In a rather nice surprise, it turns out that he was up to the task of tackling the challenging vocals. As Javert, he brings out the obsessive nature of the character quite well, eventually dealing with some rather difficult decisions of his own later on. The biggest stand out among the performances comes from Anne Hathaway as Fantine. Her rendition of “I Dreamed a Dream” is heartbreaking and beautiful, drawing you into her emotional state with every note. Just based on that one scene alone, it would not surprise me one bit if she ended up taking the Best Supporting Actress Oscar.
How appropriate that a filmmaker chasing a dream project should make a film that is in large part a film about chasing dreams. Hooper’s vision of the musical is large in scope, but not so large that he loses control over the important elements (i.e. the story and the characters). He achieves this by using mostly simple direction, similar to the technique he employed for “The King’s Speech,” that allows the performances to drive the story.
This being a musical, the gorgeous music should also be mentioned. What was rather unique was the fact that the singing was recorded directly on set, as opposed to the standard practice of recording it beforehand and having the performer match it during filming. Hearing the music from that exact moment gives it a much more intimate feeling than you would get with an actor trying to match the emotion that they put into a recording well before filming began. For a musical as powerfully emotional as this, it makes quite a big difference.
The English version of Schönberg and Boublil’s stage musical has been around since the mid-80s, making it surprising that it has taken over 25 years to bring it to the big screen. Then again, it took a long time to get some of the other great musicals there as well: “The Phantom of the Opera” (18 years), “Chicago” (27 years), and “Sweeney Todd” (28 years). It seems to be a rarer and rarer occurrence to get a musical this good adapted this well. As with the others listed here, it was definitely worth the long wait. 4/4 stars.
Starts tomorrow in theaters everywhere.
Now playing in theaters: This is 40, Amour, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, Hitchcock, Deadfall, Lay the Favorite, Silver Linings Playbook, The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn – Part 2, Lincoln, Argo