With Les Misérables (2012), Oscar-winning director Tom Hooper attempts to breathe new life and perspective into Victor Hugo’s classic 1862 novel about the tumultuous era of nineteenth century France – a story which has been adapted so many times on both stage and screen it is hard to keep count. With some bold approaches in both format and design, and a star-studded cast attempting to tackle one of the most recognized and beloved songbooks in musical theater, the question is: does Hooper’s Les Mis achieve the greatness of its book, stage, and onscreen counterparts?
The answer is that while it may not be a perfect vision of the epic tale, this new Les Misérables certainly does offer enough fresh perspective and impressive craftsmanship to be called a worthwhile endeavor.
For those not familiar with the work, Les Mis centers on Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) a man imprisoned for nineteen years for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his relatives – and then, trying to escape that hellish imprisonment. Under the watch of duty-driven lawman Javert (Russell Crowe), Jean Valjean endlessly labors until he is granted parole and sent out into the streets as a beggar and pariah. He is taken in by a kind bishop (veteran Les Mis actor Colm Wilkinson), and despite stealing from his holy benefactor, is awarded a chance at repentance.
Not wasting the opportunity, Jean Valjean reinvents himself as a successful businessman living under a false alias. However, fate intervenes when an elderly man is nearly crushed to death, and Valjean is the only one compassionate enough to help – a feat of strength witnessed by inspector Javert, who begins to suspect that this wealthy nobleman is actually his escaped parolee, Jean Valjean. Fate intercedes a second time soon after when Jean crosses paths with Fantine (Anne Hathaway), a young woman cast out of his factory who has since turned to prostitution in order to send money to her daughter, Cosette, who is living in the “care” of heartless thieves Thénardier (Sacha Baron Cohen) and Madame Thénardier (Helena Bonham Carter). In Fantine, Valjean recognizes an innocent soul he has wronged, and pledges to save the woman’s daughter – even at the cost of rekindling Javert’s relentless pursuit of him.
After that, the tale broadens into a sweeping epic of love, morality and politics, as Jean Valjean raises Cosette (Amanda Seyfried) as his own, until the girl falls in love with Marius (Eddie Redmayne), a young nobleman-turned-revolutionary, thereby intwining the fates of all the players with the political upheaval taking place in the streets of France.
Hooper’s direction of Les Misérables is fittingly epic and gorgeous, bringing nineteenth century France alive in the same way he did WWII-era England in his Oscar-winning film The King’s Speech. The production design and costumes of Les Mis are impeccable, and many familiar set pieces from the award-winning stage play are brought to life in such vivid new dimensions that it’s hard not to feel as though you are seeing the story again for the first time. Certain sequences are downright masterful (the barricade battle) and certain images are indelible works of art in motion (the opening and closing scenes, or the final fate of Javert).
Hooper also made the bold choice to have the beloved songbook by Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boublil sung live on set by the actors – as opposed to being recorded in a studio and added during post-production. This achieves the desired effect of making the musical experience feel more immersive and organic in terms of actor performance and tactile response to the environment and other cast members; although, at times it does make for some awkward melodic phrasing where spoken dialogue would’ve properly sufficed.
The cast of actors all carry the tunes pretty well, but there are some standouts (Jackman, Hathaway, Redmayne) who overshadow some of the other cast members (Crowe, Seyfried) who will likely have their singing critiqued to no end. Hooper often chooses to frame his singers in close-up, revealing the workings of their facial features and emotions; while this too adds new dimensions to our interpretation of character and story, it can also be frustrating at times when the eye wants to see the actors framed against the lush environments they are inhabiting. Still, of the forty-nine(!) songs included in the film – including one new number, “Suddenly” – most of the favorite numbers are executed well, and certainly well enough to have a new crop of viewers humming the tunes long after the end credits roll.
As stated, the cast is pretty wonderful, mixing big-name stars with stage performers – including a couple thespians who have tackled Les Mis onstage before. Jackman gives the best performance of his career as Jean Valjean; Eddie Redmayne (My Week With Marilyn) gives a breakout performance as Marius; Carter and Cohen put their comedic quirks to great use as the scene-stealing Thénardiers (some of the film’s best sequences involve their thieving antics); Hathaway once again surprises in her versatility and ability; and Les Mis vet Samantha Barks has played the role of Éponine enough to know how to distinguish the pivotal character. Crowe and Seyfried are more tame and mundane in their roles – which is not to say they are bad, simply unremarkable and lacking the captivating gravity of some of their co-stars. Crowe in particular is a somewhat lackluster antagonist – though he carries a tune better than has been suggested.
At nearly three hours in runtime (and almost every line of dialogue in song) Les Mis is definitely NOT for those who are shaky on the prospect of epic musicals. Attentive listening is certainly required, as there several jumps in time, and the aging and re-introduction of several characters to keep note of. There is also little connective tissue between one musical number and the next to help anyone not following the songs closely to understand what is going on. Indeed, that is one drawback to this format of filmmaking: the sometimes jostling and disorienting progression, which doesn’t follow typical cinematic rules of moment-to-moment explanation, movement and development.
Nevertheless, the sheer scale of what Hooper and Co. have created is impressive in its own right, and the streamlined and insightful take on Hugo’s novel opens up the story in new ways that distinguish this version of Les Mis from its many predecessors. Is it perfect? No. Is it worthy of the word “classic?” Perhaps in some circles of opinion. But for my part (as an admitted causal fan of musicals) it is simply a very gorgeous, well-executed (but at times lukewarm) film.
Les Misérables is now playing in theaters. It is 157 min long and Rated PG-13 for suggestive and sexual material, violence and thematic elements. For more on the film’s production, read our interview with the Les Mis Cast and director.