Director Tom Hooper has followed smash hit The King’s Speech with his adaptation of all-singing, all-tear jerking musical Les Misérables, and even though it has hit our screens right at the beginning of the year, you can bet that we won’t have forgotten it by the end.
The film tells the story of Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman), a man imprisoned for nineteen years for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his starving family. After breaking his parole, he is pursued across the years by policeman Inspector Javert (Russell Crowe), a man obsessed with carrying out the letter of the law. Tied up with his story is that of Fantine (Anne Hathaway), a disgraced single mother who is forced into prostitution to pay for the care of her daughter Cosette (Isabelle Allen/Amanda Seyfried), who is later adopted by Valjean. In the background of all of this is the discontented rumbling of post-revolutionary France.
Les Misérables is first and foremost a musical, but it seems to go against nearly all the tropes that are brought to mind by that word. There are no ridiculously large crinoline skirts, no be-suited tap dancing men in top hats, and definitely no montages that involve running gaily through downtown Salzburg – more crawling wretchedly through the excrement-coated sewers of Paris. Although, there is a fair bit of singing in the rain. That and starvation, injustice, unrequited love, prostitution, general poverty, and of course death. Hold onto your hats kids, becauseThe Sound of Music this ain’t.
If you’re not into singing, fair enough – Les Mis is not the film for you. The characters sing constantly, and I mean constantly. Almost every single word is either sung or spoken in a very tuneful manner. There has been much conjecture about whether the star-studded but not necessarily particularly musical cast would be able to cut the mustard, but they’ve done a sterling job – particularly considering that Hooper took the decision to have the songs filmed and sung at the same time.
In other words, when you watch Jackman and Crowe squaring up to each other as Valjean and Javert, they’re really singing in each other’s faces, not mouthing along to a pre-recorded track. This has the effect of placing the actors more within their characters, allowing them to take polished, over-the-top dramatic songs and make them gritty and realistic. This is never more apparent than during Anne Hathaway’s Golden Globe winning performance of ‘I Dreamed a Dream’ – the camera never leaves her haggard face, as having sold her hair, her teeth and finally her body, Fantine laments her cruel fate.
As for the quality of the singing, we already knew that Hugh Jackman could carry a tune (his big break was in the Royal National Theatre’s 1998 production of musical Oklahoma!) and Anne Hathaway held her own when she sang a duet with him during the opening performance of the Oscars in 2009. Russell Crowe was the real surprise here – his vocal talents aren’t getting a particularly warm reception, but in actual fact, he’s not awful. He can certainly sing-talk far better than most. His voice is gravelly, but it’s rich, and it works for the character of Javert, an awkward and unbending lawman.
The camerawork is changeable, never sticking to one particular style but leaping between jerky action coverage, intimate facial close ups and the odd sweeping panorama. This unpredictability may have been a conscious creative effort, or simply a side effect of attempting to film such a contradictorily universal, personal, and thoroughly theatrical story. Either way, it works; the camera flies high above the winding alleyways of 19th century Paris, encompassing the gritty microcosm therein, or jumps and jerks at it struggles to keep up with a striding Hugh Jackman in mid lyrical flow, or closes in uncomfortably on Anne Hathaway’s face, brimming with poverty, misery and abject defeat.
Les Misérables isn’t a great work of cinema, but it is an effective one. It has universal appeal – even if you can’t stand musicals, you’ll find somebody to identify with in the sprawling cast of characters. It spins a good yarn, it’ll make you laugh, and it’ll definitely make you cry, or at least well up a little bit – that is, unless your soul is made of cast iron.
Best scene: Anne Hathway’s performance of ‘I Dreamed a Dream’.
Best performance: Anne Hathaway as Fantine.
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