Victor Hugo’s novel, first published in 1862, premiered onstage in 1985 in a musical with music and lyrics by Alain Boubil, Claude-Michel Schönberg, and Herbert Kretzmer and became a long-running stage sensation. Director Tom Hooper has adapted the stage work for a more intimate experience while still maintaining a story of epic proportions and a sweeping score that embarks on an exhilarating and exhausting emotional journey.
Les Misérables tells the story of Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman), a convict arrested for stealing a loaf of bread for his sister’s children. Repeated attempts to escape prison result in a 19-year sentence and Valjean finds himself unable to find work due to his history in prison. After changing his name and creating a new identity, he rises to success and prosperity as a businessman and mayor, but he is haunted by the lies of his past – both metaphorically by his conscience and literally by the police officer Javert (Russell Crowe). Almost 20 years pass, and Valjean raises an adopted child and witnesses a political uprising in Paris led by young students, all the while striving to redeem himself for the lies of his past.
In adapting the story for the camera, Hooper shortened a few of the songs and changed their order in the story, but aside from some small changes, he remained steadfastly true to the original musical. He also required the cast to sing live on-camera rather than record in a studio before the filming began in order to create a more intimate and realistic experience. Many of the camera shots during these songs are blunt close-ups of the actors faces, perhaps in an attempt to provide an affinity with the characters that was unavailable in a live theatrical performance.
Emotional and political passion provide no shortage of musical potential, and the score of Les Misérables contains some of the richest songs of musical theater canon. Much of the cast Hooper assembled does the score justice, especially with a surprisingly devastating performance by Anne Hathaway as Fantine, the ill-fated single mother who loses her job at a factory after the secret of her child is discovered. Fantine sells her hair and teeth and then resorts to prostitution to continue providing financially for her child, who boards with the dishonest inkeepers the Thernadiers (Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter). Hathaway’s rendition of “I Dreamed a Dream,” sung with choking sobs after her first experience as a prostitute, is a horrifying depiction of raw anguish that honors the suffering the woman went through for her daughter’s sake as well as depicting the transformation from a hopeful young woman to a sick and starving prostitute resigned to the hardships of life.
Almost two decades later, after Valjean has adopted Cosette and raised her as his own child, an uprising begins in Paris, led by wealthy student revolutionaries Enjolras (Aaron Tveit) and Marius (Eddie Redmayne). After glimpsing the adult Cosette (Amanda Seyfried) in the street, Marius immediately falls in love and is torn between a future with his love and possibly dying in the battle. Unbeknownst to him, the street urchin Eponine (Samantha Barks) also pines for him, to the point where she dresses as a man and enters the battle just to be near him. Tragedy inevitably ensues – after all, the name of the movie is Les Misérables – but it is the depiction of this tragedy, in a deeply personal way, that gives the film its powerful, and seemingly timeless, effect on the audience.
The core of Les Misérables is Jean Valjean, and the core of the movie is Hugh Jackman. Anyone who doubted that Hugh Jackman is a superhero only has to see this film to have those doubts permanently swept away. As the selfless, tormented hero, Jackman gives an intensely cerebral performance, with his expressive face and haunted eyes saying just as much as his numerous songs do. Looking and acting like an animal immediately after being released from prison and then redeemed by an act of kindness from a Bishop (played by Colm Wilkinson, the original Jean Valjean from 1985), Jackman’s transformation and emotional journey are deeply rewarding to witness, especially when he first meets the young Cosette (Isabelle Allen) and experiences the first pangs of paternal love. A Broadway veteran, Jackman capably sings the challenging score while giving a honest and heartfelt performance.
As Javert, the policeman who devotes his life to finding and arresting Valjean, Russell Crowe is unfortunately miscast. Broad-shouldered and intimidating, Crowe physically embodies the part, but he simply does not possess the vocal skills required to depict the impassioned obsession of the character. The song “Stars,” where Javert devotes his life to finding the escaped convict, is beautifully shot but carries little emotional impact. His singing sounds mechanical, never portraying Javert’s motivation or his belief that he alone is on the right, majestic path to Heaven. When he and Jackman face off in “Confrontation,” the effect is intimidating to say the least, but that effect is only physical, never vocal or emotional.
The surprise male star of Les Misérables is, without a doubt, Eddie Redmayne, who plays Marius, the rebellious, wealthy student. Redmayne’s delicate features and soft vocals are well-suited to the sensitive character and his passion for Cosette, as well as his torment over whether to pursue a romance with her or fight with his fellow students. His performance of “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables” is a gripping portrayal of grief and loss and one of the more moving moments of the latter half of the film. (And that is saying something.)
As the corrupt inkeepers, the Thernadiers, Cohen and Carter provide ample comedic relief, mugging for the camera at every possible opportunity. While their performances do provide some valuable laughs, and “Master of the House” is quite entertaining to watch, the comedy downplays the actual villainy of the characters, who neglect and abuse the child entrusted to their care.
I have been a fan of Les Misérables since I was a child and have seen the stage musical four times. I have also read the book and am familiar with the social and political context of the story. However, I did experience objections to how both Cosette and Eponine were portrayed in the movie, especially Eponine. The daughter of the corrupt inkeepers Monsiuer and Madame Thernadier, Eponine is a survivor and, in the play she makes the deliberate choice to risk her life to fight at the barricades with Marius, even though she knows he does not love her. This musical exchange was deleted from the film’s score (but it did include a shot of Eponine binding her breasts to disguise herself as a boy), which I thought was a crucial aspect of Eponine’s character – and her death. As Eponine, Barks sings beautifully and gives an impassioned performance as the lovelorn girl, but she simply looks too pretty – and shows too much cleavage – to be completely believable as a starving street urchin. Her portrayal of “On My Own,” sung while wandering the street in the pouring rain, is particularly moving (especially to a viewer who used to sing that song in high school while driving her car.)
As Cosette, Seyfried looks beautiful and sings beautifully – and little else is asked of her. The part of Cosette has never been written to be particularly strong; she is raised to be a good and loving woman. That’s all. But did almost every shot of her have to be framed in flowers? We know she is feminine; that has been established quite well.
The film of Les Misérables provides the opportunity to experience the story more intimately – and more brutally – and Hooper has seized upon that opportunity with passion. He alternates between broad, sweeping angles that fly through the streets of Paris, depicting the cramped claustrophobia of the slums as well as the frantic desire of the residents to escape. The energy of the revolt is depicted, as well as the battles, which are bloody and brutal. As Enjolras, the devoted leader of the students, Tveit gives a characteristically intense performance, emphasizing the passionate desire for justice and his willingness to die for it.
There is no shortage of death in Les Misérables, but neither is inspiration for the future. While the movie is heartfelt, sincere and devastating, it is also hopeful. As the revolutionary students sing before going into battle, “There is a life about to start when tomorrow comes.”