A musical that’s grand and intimate, stylish and gritty, Les Miserables swings for the rafters with its rousing performances and director Tom Hooper’s innovative direction.
Victor Hugo’s novel Les Miserables was first published in 1862. It’s an epic tale about obsession, love, redemption and revolution, and has been adapted into several different mediums, with most popular the stage musical that has played worldwide in multiple languages and has obtained such popularity that even a rendition of its most popular song by a talent show contestant has spurned her onto worldwide fame.
While there have been film adaptations of the Hugo novel, it is only now that the challenge has been accepted to capture the magic of the stage musical on screen. Taking on the challenge is Tom Hooper, Oscar winning director of The King’s Speech. One can only imagine Hooper being inundated with one film project after another past Oscar win. That he decided to take on not only a musical, but arguably the most popular musical of the last 30 years speaks volumes about his ambition and courage, made even more impressive in the way he directed Les Miserables to make for immersive, if not at times jarring viewing.
The film begins on a grand scale as Hooper’s camera opens on a shipping yard and steadily zooms in on prisoners pulling in a massive ship from the sea. Among them is Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) who is completing hard time for stealing a loaf of bread. Keeping close watch is Inspector Javert (Russell Crowe) the hard line law enforcer who warns that if Valjean breaks parole, he will be hunted to his last days.
Drivingly inspired advice by a wise bishop leads Valjean to seek a better life under a new identity, kicks-tarting the film into essentially a chase movie complete with revolutionary war and a strong spiritual significance, with Valjean and Javet portraying two different types of Christian men whose interpretations of their religion is personified in their actions, Javet combining the law with God and Valjean believing that “to love each other, is to love God.”
Whereas your usual musical features spontaneous jumps into song numbers, Les Miserables is firmly rooted in an alternate world where to sing is to communicate. Hooper adds risk to the structure by incorporating “live singing”, with vocal performances recorded while filming. Luckily for Hooper (and the audience) he has the right players to pull off such a feat. Hugh Jackman finally gets the chance to let the music-man side of him shine on screen with an impassioned turn as Jean Valjean, Anne Hathaway all but secures an Oscar with her turn as the embattled single mother turned prostitute Fantine (complete with a rousing rendition of signature song “I Dreamed a Dream”), and Eddie Redmayne gives an emotive performance displaying an impressive vocal range. The only weak link is Russell Crowe, his limited vocals subduing his usual intense screen presence to make for a surprisingly tame Inspector Javert.
Roving camera work with tight framed, arching shots (with an heavy emphasis on close-ups) is the direction taken by Hooper and his regular cinematographer Danny Cohen. On one hand it provides on intimate experience to feel so close to the action. On another, it takes away from the art direction and set design that is begging to be captured in an epic scope.
What is certain is that Hooper gives a one of a kind, immersive cinema experience that is a feast for the eyes, ears and the heart. Such an accomplishment should be applauded, faults and all.