Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schonberg certainly did not need for a film adaptation of “Les Miserables” to happen to validate the work. After all, this is one of the most successful stage productions of all time, omnipresent for over over two decades, beloved and still relevant. There was a point in Hollywood history where any successful stage musical was automatically brought to the screen in the most lavish possible fashion, but that hasn’t been true for many years now. Musicals, like Westerns, are increasingly rare, and Hollywood is no longer turning out performers who are automatically at home singing and dancing in front of the camera. For Tom Hooper, following up “The King’s Speech” was going to be tough no matter what, and I’ll give him credit for ambition. He called his shot and swung for a home run, and while he didn’t knock it out of the park, the material itself is so strong, and the film’s cast is so game, that it doesn’t matter.
The script by Alain Boublil, Jean-Marc Natel, James Fenton and William Nicholson is very faithful to the original stage production, which plays almost as a highlights reel of Victor Hugo’s novel. There is a sort of runaway train quality to the narrative, and the film maintains that same breakneck pace from the visually arresting opening moments to the final haunting moments. There is a feeling at times that things move so quickly and with such unrelenting pace that it’s hard to catch your breath, hard to let yourself fully experience a beat emotionally, but that’s the production itself. It’s just inherent to how they’ve told the story. And while there are certainly things about the film that make full use of the difference between stage and screen, this still feels like a fairly intimately scaled story considering the time span it covers and the huge cast of characters involved.
The film opens with a shot underwater, looking up at a faded French flag floating on the surface, as the camera moves in on it, then past it, breaking the surface to reveal a giant ship being pulled into a shipyard, racing down the giant ropes held taut by long lines of prisoners, finally finding one prisoner in particular, a man worn gaunt by hard labor. Hugh Jackman has finally found a film role that allows him to use his undeniable gifts as a song and dance man, and every bit of his musical theater training comes into play in his work as Jean Valjean. He easily conveys the turbulent inner life of Valjean, and he looks like a guy who is just barely holding it together physically. The opening movement of the film is all about his relationship with Javert (Russell Crowe), a policeman who believes firmly that criminals never change. When Valjean is given his parole, Javert reminds him that he will always be marked by his crimes, that he will never truly be free again. Valjean tries to establish his new life, tries to find legitimate work, but as long as he carries his papers as a criminal, no one is going to let him forget and no one is going to trust him. When he find solace and shelter one night in a church, all of that anger and hurt that he’s built up expresses itself in one impulsive act. He takes as much silver as he can and he flees, not really thinking his way through his actions. He is caught almost immediately and hauled back to face the Bishop (Colm Wilkinson) that he stole from, and he is stunned when the Bishop confirms his story, telling the police that all of the silver was a gift, going so far as to add the candlesticks that Valjean missed the first time. He tells Valjean that this is his chance to truly start over, and Valjean takes that chance.
Years go by, and when we catch up with Valjean, he’s now the owner of a factory, a respected employer, a remade man. Now the focus of the story shifts, and Fantine (Anne Hathaway) becomes the main character for a stretch. She’s one of his employees, and she does her best to keep her head down, to stay invisible. She has a child who she had to leave in someone else’s care, and she sends every penny she earns to go towards the little girl’s care. Because she keeps to herself, she’s an easy target for the other women she works with, and when there’s a problem at the factory, she’s the one who is blamed for it. She tries to appeal to Valjean, but she is fired and tossed out in the street, and Hooper paints a truly ugly portrait of her quick slide into the dark and terrible corners of life on the streets. Many people know Fantine’s big number in the film, “I Dreamed A Dream,” but taken out of context, it’s so pretty that the message can get lost. By contrast, Hooper heaps on the grime and the the bleak, so when Anne Hathaway finally launches into the song, it comes from a place of absolute darkness. Hooper stays in close on her the entire time, and it feels like a hopeless prayer, a cry for help heard by no one. It is a shattering moment, and for the first time in a long time, it feels like that song finally works as intended again, not as this lovely uplifting anthem, but rather as one last gasp before Fantine’s light is fully extinguished.
Once Valjean realizes what role he played in Fantine’s fate, he vows to rescue her daughter and raise her well, leading to the film’s second big jump forward in time as Cosette goes from charming little girl, played by Isabelle Allen, to fetching young woman, played by Amanda Seyfried. The entire time, Javert keeps crossing back into the life of Valjean, who is determined to preserve his hard-won freedom, while civil unrest and a growing sense of revolution plays out as the backdrop for this story of lies and redemption. Cosette falls in love with Marius (Eddie Redmayne), the same young revolutionary that Eponine (Samantha Barks) carries a torch for, and as the personal stories come to a head, so does the revolution, allowing for big sweeping numbers as well as small personal songs. It’s a huge canvass, which makes it feel a little odd at times that we see the same few blocks of Paris over and over. I understand shooting on soundstages so that you can preserve the live performances of the actors, but it feels like Hooper didn’t quite open the world up enough at times.
It’s interesting to see very different performance styles up against each other in the film. Jackman, as I said, is at home here, and he gives a wonderful performance as Valjean. He plays the anger, the sorrow, the brief moments of joy, all with nuance and skill, and his voice is fantastic. Eddie Redmayne is probably the big revelation of the film, and he has a great singing voice as well. Seyfried is very pretty as Cosette, and she’s got a sweet little trill of a voice, but as is often the case with “the love interest,” she’s very underwritten, and it’s a tough role to make interesting. Samantha Barks actually fares better with her brief turn as Eponine, and much of the cast scores even in small moments. Perhaps the most controversial casting decision in the film was Russell Crowe, and it’s true that he doesn’t have the same sort of musical theater background as Jackman. When Crowe sings, he tends to plant himself on a mark and just sort of belt it at the back wall, and I like this big baritone rock’n’roll voice. I think it’s appropriate that he sounds very different than anyone else in the film, since Javert stands apart from everyone else in the film, driven by his duty. The problem in Javert’s two big songs, though, is that when Crowe goes stationary, Hooper seems to think that’s his cue to make his camera work even harder, swooping around Crowe frantically.
That’s perhaps the film’s one big problem: Hooper often overwhelms the material with his approach. He is not afraid of bombast, but when you go that big, you can lose the human heart of what you’re doing. The best thing he does is when he gets close to his performers, creating an intimacy that can’t happen on stage. When he goes for big and sweeping, though, it sometimes feels like he isn’t quite sure what to do with his frame or how to make things work on that big canvas. I also think his choice to hire Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter to play the Thenardiers is sort of a disaster, as they appear to be beamed in from another movie. Broad and hammy and relentlessly vulgar, they have two big numbers, and I don’t think either one really works. They’re a minor speed bump, though. For the most part, I think the film does a nice job of sustaining a specific energy and tone.
Tech credits are strong throughout, including Danny Cohen’s cinematography and the digital effects used to build out the world around the sets are stylized and lovely. For many audiences, this will become the definitive version of the musical, and I think it is a very strong production overall. While I think it reveals some of Hooper’s weaknesses as a filmmaker, it plays to enough of his strengths that it looks like the long wait to bring this to the screen paid off. “Les Miserables,” like many musicals, is ultimately about emotion, and that’s the one thing that comes through loud and clear here. When it all comes down to the singing, the communication of these grand, sweeping passions in song, “Les Miserables” connects and connects and connects again, and on that level, it has to be called a triumph.
“Les Miserables” opens in theaters everywhere on Christmas Day.