There have been many screen adaptations of Victor Hugo’s classic novel Les Miserables over the years, both on TV and on the big screen. This latest version is not so much a new interpretation of the book as it is a filmed version of the long-running musical play. The film follows the play very accurately and brings the songs from Broadway to the big screen. Director Tom Hooper–who directed the Oscar winning The King’s Speech–may have another shot at a little gold statue this year because he does an excellent job turning the play into a rather epic-looking film, while also maintaining the spirit of Victor Hugo’s classic novel.
Hooper opens the film with a spectacular scene of slave-labor convicts dragging a damaged ship to the shore with massive chains. This scene introduces us to our two main characters; the unfairly imprisoned Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) and the objurate Inspector Javert (Russell Crowe) who rules the convicts with an iron fist and an iron boot. The singing begins in the opening moments and keeps up consistently until the final scene. In fact, there is very little spoken dialogue in this movie at all. It’s almost entirely done in song. The music from the popular play is as enjoyably melodious as ever. The cast of mostly non-singers does a surprisingly good job vocalizing the great Schonberg/Kretzmer songs.
For those unfamiliar with the famous tale; the story follows the life of the unfortunate Valjean who is sentenced to two decades of hard labor for stealing a loaf of bread to feed a starving child. Valjean gets no sympathy from the stone-cold Javert, who hates all law breakers, and who doesn’t believe in extenuating circumstances. When Valjean is finally released from prison, he finds that the world is not kind to ex-cons and work is impossible to get. At his lowest point, a moment of unexpected charity from a Bishop–as well as a gift of some silver candles–changes Valjean’s life and induces him to begin his ascent out of bitterness and into hope.
After changing his name and starting a newer, more successful life as the owner of a factory in a new city, Valjean’s security is threatened when Javert becomes the new local constable, and Javert never forgets a face. To make things even worse for Valjean, he finds out that one of his former employees, named Fantine (very well played by Anne Hathaway) was unfairly fired from Valjean’s factory and reduced to prostitution. Impoverished and suffering from tuberculosis, Fantine begs Valjean to take care of her daughter Cosette, which he vows to do. With little Cossette in tow, Valjean has to flee from Javert who has found out his secret.
Valjean begins yet another life in another city under a new alias, as the plot jumps ahead 10 years. Valjean is still caring for the now 18-year-old Cosette (played by the gorgeous Amanda Seyfried) who has grown into a lovely young women. She is in love with Marius (Eddie Redmayne). The romance is badly timed, however, because Marius and his friends are trying to start a second French Revolution against the oppressive monarchy, and he may not live long enough to walk down the aisle. Valjean himself is feeling the noose around his neck because Javert is hot on his tail, therefore he vows to protect Marius so that Marius can provide for Cosette if Valjean is rearrested. Thus Valjean enters the hopeless battle alongside Marius, but the persistent Javert is not far behind.
That’s the bare-bones of the plot, leaving out all the details and subplots, such as the unrequited love that Eponine (Samantha Barks) has for Marius, but he only has eyes for Cosette. Readers of the Hugo novel will note that many scenes from the book are omitted but that’s the case with most adaptations, and this one is better than most. One of the changes doesn’t quite make sense, but otherwise it isn’t a problem.
Hugh Jackman gives his best performance to date as the unlucky but noble Valjean; the victim of a monumental injustice who learns that there’s always hope in life if you persevere, no matter how much adversity is thrown at you. As an experienced stage song-and-dance man, Jackman has a well trained voice, although he sings his musical numbers with an intentional lack of vocal power that suits the much put-upon character. Russell Crowe does not have a great voice but he does adequately well, except for his number “Stars” which he can’t seem to belt-out in the way it’s usually sung. Amanda Seyfried is the embodiment of what you’d expect from Cosette–she radiants the innocent beauty and purity that the character should have. Her soprano voice is not strong but it is pleasant. A few holdovers from theatrical versions are present, including Barks, who played Eponine on stage and Colm Wilkinson (Who played Valjean on stage) as the Bishop.
The standout is Anne Hathaway as poor, doomed Fantine. She gives an excellent performance as a women driven to the depths of desperation and disease and she has a pleasant singing voice. Her mournful rendition of “I Dreamed a Dream” will certainly induce a tear or two from the audience
Comedy relief is supplied by Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter as those conniving, thieving husband-and-wife swindlers, the Thenardiers. Humor is much welcomed in such a depressing storyline, and Cohen and Carter certainly give 110% as the wacky con artists. Cohen’s accent (he seems to do goofy sounding accents in every film) switches to different dialects over the course of the film, but that may be intentional because he’s playing a con man. Carter scores even better because she adds a bit of aplomb to a trashy, sleazy character. Their scenes, however, contain some of Hooper’s worst directing, because they are filmed in a manic fashion with many quick cuts and lots of visual hijinx cluttering up the screen.
Overall, this is one of the year’s best films and a great adaptation of Hugo’s story. The music is terrific and the cast does a nice job, both with the singing and the acting. (Jackman lost weight to make himself seem emaciated.) Hooper’s directing keeps the visuals interesting. The sets and costumes are excellently done, and capture the dismal dirtiness of the French slums. But it’s the music that is the key to a good musical and this one has all the wonderful songs that have entertained theater goers for over 25 years. You’ll be humming these tunes all day after seeing this.
Recommended. Les Miserables gets a 9 out of 10.