(This review was originally published on December 24, 2012 at Reel Film News)
It doesn’t require a love of the theatre – or necessarily even a like of it – to be completely consumed by this adaptation of “Les Misérables”, which is the most moving piece of musical cinema I’ve seen in some time. By itself, Anne Hathaway’s performance as the destitute, demoralized factory worker Fantine, particularly when singing ‘I Dreamed a Dream’, is just about enough to give your eyes a perma-glaze. That’s an obvious highlight – one of the more universally recognized songs from the 1985 English language play – but it was more than enough to wash away my skeptical predisposition.
Capturing the raw emotion of the stage production, adding some digital enhancements to recreate the backdrop of 19th Century France, Academy Award winning director Tom Hooper (“The King’s Speech”) is not shy about exposing the imperfections of his actors. Extreme close-ups are his preferred style during solos, which, like all vocals in the film, are performed live – in other words, not lip-synced in postproduction – while the actors are cued through an earpiece by a piano. During these moments, in which there are very few cuts or fades, the characters feel as in-the-moment as if they’d been filmed on Broadway, a result that is astounding and painfully raw. Every vulnerability is on display, and the film caters to these flaws. The first solo, a piece called ‘What Have I Done’ performed by a bloodied, bald, scruffy-bearded Hugh Jackman, sets such an intensely distraught tone that it feels like the pain is inherent in the actor.
This role is a challenge that is well-suited for Jackman, who summons his multiple talents to play Jean Valjean, a man seeking an honest life after spending nearly two decades in prison for stealing a loaf of bread. In the opening scene, which is perhaps the most aesthetically impressive, we find him working on a chain gang under the nose of the ruthless policeman Javert (Russell Crowe) just before he’s released with the restriction of lifetime parole. Some years later, he comes face to face with Javert, who is intent on putting Valjean away for life after he breaks his conditions. Javert’s actions threaten to impede Valjean’s personal redemption, which includes a promise he’s made to Fantine to watch after her daughter Cosette (played as a young girl by Isabelle Allen and later by Amanda Seyfried, whose voice reminded me too much of “Mamma Mia”), who ends up as a servant to the cartoonish Thénardiers (Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter). These folks serve as the only comic relief with a fittingly boisterous rendition of ‘Master of the House’.
The connections all work really well, even Crowe’s typical projection of masculinity as the imposing antagonist, though his vocals often seem like an overcompensation of bellows, flat and abrupt. He still fits the role, though, and where he’s a little short on his ability to sing this way (to me it seemed to improve), he makes up for in expressive acting. “Les Misérables” also stars Eddie Redmayne (who I appreciate here much more here than in I did in last year’s aggressively dull Oscar contender “My Week With Marilyn”), as an integral part of the 1832 student rebellion in Paris where the film’s events culminate, and love interest of Cosette; Samantha Barks reprises her role from the stage as Éponine, daughter of the Thénardiers, with an impressive sense of conflict and heartbreak.
Sometimes challenging to watch, and even in spots not easy to listen to, we are reminded that the squalor described in Victor Hugo’s novel was not the basis for some whimsical fantasy, but a story about compassion and hope rising from the ashes of great loss. Indeed Hooper has made a powerful film, one that crept up on me like a long lost childhood emotion. The performances, particularly from Jackman and Hathaway, will resonate with me for some time.