Tom Hooper’s adaptation of Victor Hugo’s classic isn’t pretty. It’s grimy, dirty and filled with patchy vocal performances. It’s also pretty darn terrific, as what those vocals might occasionally lack in terms of polish they make up for with their sheer emotional depth. Indeed, it’s clear that this version of Les Misérables isn’t trying to be a prettied-up affair like the acclaimed stage musical. Instead, it’s an original telling; a layered mix of visual storytelling, powerful dramatic performances and the familiar showstoppers as filtered through a more grounded lens. Don’t expect Broadway.
Set in 19th century France, the story follows convict Jean Valjean who’s finally set free on parole after 19 years of imprisonment for stealing a loaf of bread. Valjean (Hugh Jackman) breaks parole however and is ruthlessly pursued by Javert (Russell Crowe), the police inspector who originally set him free. Meanwhile, Fantine (Anne Hathaway), a single mother who works in a factory, is forced to turn prostitute to provide for her daughter Cosette. Valjean eventually takes in Cosette and attempts to build a new life while remaining hidden from the relentless pursuit of the law.
It’s a story that spans decades with many more characters who are introduced over the course of the film’s entirely too epic 157-minute length. From Eddie Redmayne’s Marius to Sacha Baron Cohen’s Thénardier, Les Misérables isn’t short of a colourful and memorable cast, which is a good thing too because it all starts to feel a bit stretched towards the end. It’s even more fortunate then that the vocals, while not always up to the stage musical’s pristine standard (at least from a purely technical point of view), manage to resonate by conveying a great deal of emotion whether it be vulnerability, self-doubt, sadness, love or jubilation. This is in large part thanks to the fact that the performances were filmed on set rather than dubbed over later, enabling Hooper to capture the raw emotion and spontaneity afforded by live shooting.
Much has been said about Anne Hathaway’s moving performance of ‘I Dreamed a Dream’, and Jackman is no slouch either in the very demanding role of Valjean. Some have cited Crowe as the weak link but I disagree. He might not have the greatest vocal range but his harsh, gravelly tone is far from bad. Importantly, Crowe certainly has the bearing of Javert and manages to transform the police inspector into a complex, multifaceted character. Of course, none of this mentions the outstanding supporting cast, all of whom put in exceptional performances. Some of my favourite numbers included ‘The Confrontation’, ‘Master of the House’, ‘One Day More’ and ‘Do You Hear the People Sing?’ among many more.
Needless to say, the soundtrack is absolutely spectacular and is – thankfully – matched by equally engrossing production design, from the richly detailed sets to the intricate costuming and makeup. It’s a bit of a shame then that Hooper, who previously directed Best Picture winner The King’s Speech, chooses to frame a fair few of the numbers up close and personal, focused solely on the singer’s face. While it works well to emphasise the intimacy of certain pieces it’s done a couple of times too many. It’s refreshing then whenever the more elaborately staged numbers like the crazed ‘Master of the House’ finally come in to inject a bit of levity into the proceedings. It can’t all be miserable after all.
Imperfections notwithstanding, this is a magical film that puts a unique spin on the stage musical. Bring tissues.