William Nicholson (Musical Book: Claude-Michel Schonberg, Alain Boublil; Musical Lyrics: Herbert Kretzmer; Novel: Victor Hugo)
Hugh Jackman, Eddie Redmayne, Russell Crowe, Amanda Seyfried, Anne Hathaway, Aaron Tveit, Samantha Barks, Helena Bonham Carter, Sacha Baron Cohen, Isabelle Allen
PG-13 for suggestive and sexual material, violence and thematic elements
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Borrowing generously from the styles of musicals past, Oscar winning director Tom Hooper adapts the beloved 1985 stage musical Les Misérables with a master’s paintbrush. Reminiscent of the great crowd-pleasing musicals of the 1950’s and 1960’s, Hooper’s story of a 19th century criminal seeking redemption takes the audience on a spectacular excursion into 19th Century Paris and the class warfare that has eerie similarities to conflicts in evidence today.
Hugh Jackman ably carries the Claude-Michel Schonberg-Alain Boublil musical (with English lyrics by Herbert Kretzmer) based on the classic Victor Hugo novel as Jean Valjean, a poor man imprisoned for several years for the simple act of stealing a loaf of bread. The movie opens as Valjean is being released from incarceration. Jumping bail to try and make a better life for himself, he assumes a new name and identity before becoming a patron to a young girl named Cosette (Isabelle Allen as the young girl and Amanda Seyfried as the grown woman) whose mother’s (Anne Hathaway) death Valjean feels is a result of his calous disregard of her plight.
Valjean’s plight is complicated by a persistent policeman named Javert (Russell Crowe) who wants to arrest and re-imprison Valjean for his simple act of disobedience. As Valjean attempts to atone for his life’s misdeeds, Javert refuses to allow him respite, pursuing him for much of the musical.
Jackman seems a natural fight for Valjean, a gifted vocalist with acting talent so seldom used to its potential. Valjean is a compelling and endearing character thanks to Jackman’s unflinching conviction. Yet, there are two performances in the film that outclass his. Hathaway has a very brief role in the film, playing the put-upon mother Fantine. She only has one song with which to shine, but it’s a pinnacle number of the film. “I Dreamed a Dream” was the highlight of early previews for the film and the full version delivered by Hathaway is sensational. Actors able to sing unerringly while performing with such honesty and emotional drain are few and Hathaway showcases just how it should be done.
The other most notable performer is Eddie Redmayne. While his career has been restricted largely to British dramas, he had a pivotal role in last year’s My Week with Marilyn where he managed to hold his own against the outstanding Michelle Williams. Here, Redmayne plays a wealthy young man intent on supporting the poor and indigent in their fight to escape oppression. Redmayne has a few good numbers, but it’s his rendition of “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables” that defines his performance. The pain and guilt his Marius conveys is heartbreaking as is much of the second act of the film.
Crowe is far better than I expected, never having heard him sing previously. While his Javert is the traditional bad guy, he gives him sympathetic characteristics that give his convictions meaning even if we revile his actions. Amanda Seyfried showcases some surprising talent after a rather lackluster career in Hollywood thus far, while musical theatre notables Aaron Tveit as Marius’ co-conspirator and rebel leader Enjorlas, and Samantha Barks as overshadowed love interest Eponine are excellent in the only key roles not doled out to prominent Hollywood players. While neither is particularly well known off the musical stage, their performances here deserve all the attention they can get, adding immeasurable talent to the film’s ensemble.
Les Misérables doesn’t have a small cast. Like its grand, and epic nature, the film features a large array of colorful characters, some of whom seem rather unnecessary to the plot. Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter play two of those characters. As the innkeepers Thénardier and his wife, their past experience on Tim Burton’s execrable Sweeney Todd makes them seem like natural fits for the film. However, as they play characters that aren’t particularly deep or interesting, the fact that their performances are near carbon copies of their work in Sweeney Todd only exacerbates their semblance of uselessness.
Director Tom Hooper is no stranger to period dramas. Two popular TV miniseries, Elizabeth I and John Adams, highlighted his ability to handle large casts and larger ideas, but his big screen debut The King’s Speech was less than satisfying. Apart from not deserving an Oscar for his serviceable work on the film, it created a doubt in me that he could handle the largesse of big screen work. Filling the entire cineplex not only with the sound of music, but the visual panache of spectacle seemed like it might be a daunting cast. Conveyong grandeur on the small screen is no easy feat, so I shouldn’t have doubted his ability to handle massively larger medium, but Les Misérables more than proves he could handle it.
Gathering some very talented artisans, Hooper crafted a gorgeous recreation of the dingy streets of Paris in the early 19th Century, juxtoposing the obscenely wealthy with the poor and downtrodden. Cinematographer Danny Cohen’s lense beautifully captured the detailed production design of Eve Stewart and costuming by Paco Delgado. It’s a sumptuous visual feast that envelops the audience into its setting.
Les Misérables became popular in a period of World history when little of international importance was occurring. Its historical references were simply a compelling adaptation of the legendary Hugo novel. It was incredibly popular for reasons other than political. Releasing today, there are a number of compelling parallels to the film’s themes. While it would be easy to highlight the violence in the Middle East as part of the Arab Spring, there are subtle jabs at the recent Occupy Wall Street movement, wherein protestors shut down Wall Street in an effort to highlight the disparity of wealth between the wealhiest Americans and the poorest. Much of that protest went peacefully, due to the global attention that was paid, but comparing it to the events of Les Mis assures me that a little of that rebellion is enshrined in this film. Replace the guns and violence of the film with the media burial of the cause and you have a more tenuous, but no less astute comparison.
That being said, the revolution in Syria bears a striking resemblance to the historical period of French Revolution wherein the people brought down the corrupt government that kept them at heel for too long. Les Misérables is a fitting comparison to the violence in Syria, even if what takes place in Les Misérables is a small precursor to the events that would best act as simile to Syria.
Political statements aside, Les Misérables remains the crowd-pleasing sensation it was nearly thirty years ago. While the revolutionary aspect of the film is but a small aspect of the grander theme of atonement and redemption as part of Valjean’s character development, there’s no question that both play intimately well together and that the end result is a rowsing and celebratory experience. Not since the glory days of the movie musical in the 1950’s and 1960’s has a film so effectively captured an emotional zeitgeist. Easily comparable to the likes of West Side Story, The Sound of Music or Oliver!, Les Misérables is a musical for the ages. It’s my personal favorite production from the last decade and will likely rank as one of my all-time favorites.
Guarantees: Cinematography, Production Design, Costume Design, Makeup, Sound Mixing
Probables: Picture, Director, Supporting Actress (Anne Hathaway), Original Song, Film Editing
Potentials: Actor (Hugh Jackman), Supporting Actor (Russell Crowe, Eddie Redmayne), Supporting Actress (Samantha Barks, Amanda Seyfried), Sound Editing
December 10, 2012