Director: Tom Hooper
Starring: Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, Anne Hathaway, Amanda Seyfried, Sasha Baron Cohen, Helena Bonham Carter, Eddie Redmayne
Written by: (book) Claude-Michel Schonberg, Alain Boubil, (lyrics) Herbert Kretzmer, (novel) Victor Hugo, (screenplay) William Nicholson and (additional text) James Fenton
Running Time: 157 mins
Release date: 11th January 2013
For almost 30 years, Les Miserables has been playing to packed houses in London’s West End. I, myself, spent two and a half very happy years working in the production in the late 80s and so when the film finally got made, I was more than a little excited to see what has been done. Has the biggest musical in the world translated to the screen well? Kind of…
Set around the time of the French Revolution, Jean Valjean has been paroled after spending 19 years as a prisoner for stealing a loaf of bread. Skipping bail, he steals some silver from a priest who saves him from the police but tells him to use the silver wisely to change his ways. He does and becomes mayor of a small town in France but his past soon catches up with him in the form of Chief of Police, Javert.
Valjean meets a dying woman, Fantine and promises her to look after her daughter, Cosette. Years later, as the people of France rise up against the royalty, a young revolutionary, Marius, falls in love with Cosette and as Valjean cannot protect her from his past, is willing to give her up to the young man, even though he is fighting behind the infamous barricades against the Royal army. All this while, Javert hasn’t given up on bringing Valjean to justice.
Victor Hugo immense novel was bravely translated into the hit musical and even though originally panned by the critics, it has gone on to having global success. It has taken years for the film to finally arrive and in control of bringing it to the screen is Oscar winning director Tom Hooper, who did an amazing job on The King’s Speech. Here he has the daunting task of delivering and for me, it didn’t blow me completely away.
The main trouble is the size of the production. On the stage, it is huge. Huge sets, huge musical numbers, the stage is filled with bodies, sound and visuals. So bringing that scale to the big screen, this should have been enormous. It’s not. It starts off with a bang. A huge ship being pulled by prisoners in a crash of waves while the first few chords of the score literally shakes the seats. It then has the effect of someone saying: “It’s too loud, can we turn it down a bit” and so both sound and visual become small. Most of the scenes are filmed either in extreme close ups or mid-shots, so we don’t get an epic feel at all.
Take, for example, Master Of The House, one of the few lighter numbers in the show. This should be a larger than life extravaganza with the audience not knowing where to look. Instead, the camera concentrates on Sasha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter’s pickpocketing and thieving and never fully explores the Inn’s vibrant atmosphere.
The close-up do work for some of the more intimate numbers but I wanted to be blown away by the grandeur of the piece and it only delivers that in small measures. Even the mighty barricade isn’t so mighty and when the film ends and we see a huge barricade, you scream out “that’s what I wanted from the beginning!”
The performances are mostly good to excellent with really only one weak spot. Hugh Jackman as Valjean has the power physically for the role and in most places, he does vocally. The film’s added attraction is that it was recorded live so what you see on screen is actually being sung as we watch and not pre-recorded and mimed like most movie musicals. Jackson does gives us a strong Valjean but there are odd moments when he struggles with a few high notes.
Eddie Redmayne as Marius is perfectly cast and his standout performance is the beautiful yet heartbreaking Empty Chairs At Empty Tables, which is extraordinary. Samantha Barks makes for a delicious Eponine while Amanda Seyfried as the sweet, grown-up Cosette is fine but I did expect her to burst into ABBA tunes during her songs (see Mamma Mia). Baron Cohen and Bonham Carter are hilarious as the thieving Thenardiers and almost steal the whole film from everyone.
The only weak point is Russell Crowe as Javert. He looks the part, he acts the part but his singing voice struggles and it becomes very noticeable when he duets with Jackman and you almost lose what Crowe is singing over Jackman’s power. He does get better in the second half but he sounds like he cannot contain the high notes. There is also a strange thing occurring when Javert is left alone. Walking on the edge of things seem to be his habit. It happens twice during the film and you wonder if they were not hammering the imagery home too much.
The standout performance, for me, was Anne Hathaway as Fantine. I have seen so many version of the now classic I Dreamed A Dream but I have never seen a version like this. She literally is exhilarating, completely reinventing a now standard song and delivering it with such passion and emotion, I dare anyone not to be emotionally drained after watching it. If there is one reason to see this film, this is it.
I really wanted to love this film but the disappointing scale of it meant that I liked it but wished I was blown away by it. Some films demand to be seen in the cinema. Les Miserables should have been one of them. Instead, you could watch it on the TV and not miss anything. Sometimes big can be beautiful. If only someone had told Tom Hooper.