Les Misérables is the notoriously bleak tale of a gritty, revolutionary France, told on an epic scale. A sweeping portrayal of oppression and redemption, Tom Hooper’s film is a painfully raw, intimate and brave transposition to screen.
The film kicks off with a view of the weatherworn convicts roaring ‘Look Down’ as they battle against the elements in spectacular panorama. Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) is a convict serving his time for a petty crime under the ruthless gaze of Javert (Russell Crowe). Eight years later, Valjean is a gentleman in 1820s France, taking in the impoverished Cosette to honour his promise to the ill-fated mother Fantine (a radiant Anne Hathaway). Jump forward to 1832, and revolution is in the air. The proletariat take on the aristocracy, love blossoms between a now grown-up Cosette (Amanda Seyfried) and activist Marius (Eddie Redmayne); and Valjean’s past catches up with him, in the form of the vengeful Javert.
The story is an epic one, with multiple characters on a huge historical scale wailing some of the most famous songs in musical history from the gutter of nineteenth-century France. This is already a landmark in the film-musical, Hooper’s decision to film all the singing live a shrewd and triumphant choice. He strips down the songs, with the camera invasively closing in on the actor’s faces with little or no cuts. For a musical that takes on so much misery and dejection in such an impoverished, bleak context, this level of realism is perfect: it enriches rather than jars with the music.
Yes, he stomps and bellows, but he does it all pretty well.
Hugh Jackman’s performance is faultless in acting terms: his sunken, hollow face and stooped, broken physicality perfectly encapsulate the hardships of the era. His singing, however, is more like bleating and is simply too weak to carry the operatic songs of Valjean. However, the rest of the casting is impeccable. Sacha Baron-Cohen and Helena Bonham-Carter make a hilarious team as the Dickensian fraudsters, and Kings chorister Eddie Redmayne proves himself to be a real talent. Newcomers Aaron Tveit, as the tragic revolutionary Enjolras, and Samantha Barks, as the hopelessly in love Eponine, are also impressive. Even Russell Crowe pulls out a wonderfully theatrical performance. Yes, he stomps and bellows, but he does it all pretty well.
However, it is a luminous Anne Hathaway who steals the show in a tremendous twenty-minute performance. Fantine’s rapid spiral into poverty and prostitution is portrayed with conviction and compassion for the utter awfulness of Fantine’s fate. Her performance of ‘I Dreamed a Dream’ is an astounding piece of cinema.
The film perhaps stays too much in a studio setting, its stage roots too apparent to allow the movie to just be a movie. It takes a good twenty minutes to get going, but builds a momentum that, once attained, is never lost. LES MISÉRABLES is a surprising achievement in cinema: a stripped-down, poignant adaptation that stays true to the raw emotion of the original story.