Les Misérables already created an astounding reputation for itself on stage as the world’s longest running musical. Based upon Victor Hugo’s historical novel (1862) it was turned into a musical with music by Claude-Michel Schonberg and lyrics by Alain Boublil and has been performed on the West End stage since 1985. The story begins in 1815 and culminates in the 1832 June Rebellion in Paris, both the novel and the musical follow the lives and interactions of several characters, focusing on the struggles of ex-convict Jean Valjean and his experience of redemption. This phenomenon has now been transformed into a beautiful, dramatic and awe inspiring film by director Tom Hooper (Elizabeth I, The King’s Speech).
Hooper’s strengths as a director are fully explored to great dramatic effect with incredible imagery. The opening image of the capsized ship was striking and the sound of waves and of the men slaving away, before Javert hands Jean Valjean his freedom, was mesmerising and captured the attention immediately.
Hooper’s almost operatic style was combined with an unerring need for realism – the image may be beautiful but it still packed an emotional, thought-provoking punch. This was clear in two very poignant moments. The first being the shooting of Gavroche, played by Daniel Huttlestone, which stayed true to both book and stage musical. The street urchin was singing whilst defiantly collecting the cartridges and survived one shot, the second was fatal blow. The opera came from the stirring music and the volume of each shot whilst the truth and tears came from the urchin seemingly smaller by being on his knees, the look in the gunman’s eyes and then finally from the look in Gavroche’s eyes as he lay staring – dead and cold.
The second clear example of these clever juxtaposing forces combining is when Javert, portrayed stunningly by Russell Crowe, commits suicide. The tension building of seeing Javert walk the ledge (including well timed close ups of his shoes), the ferocious waves beneath him and an ever-building inner torment on Crowe’s face all helped to bring out the drama in the scene. The image of Javert standing looking out across the ledge, filmed from behind, was like a painting by Caravaggio – a strong man now powerless – and was also reminiscent of the opening scene when he stood watching his slaves with total control. The realism was brought home by the sound of the body hitting the rocks and watching it be sucked from life. Brilliant!
There were some startlingly brilliant performances and I’d like to take some time to point a fe of those.
Hugh Jackman in the lead role as Jean Valjean was magnificent. The anguish and pain so apparent for all to see and his extended vocal range shone triumphantly throughout. His interpretation and delivery of both lyric and character were second to none. The dedication to his role was clear, his weight loss and later weight gain helped the audience immediately see the changes in his life.
Javert was played well by Russell Crowe – showing that he is more than a “Hollywood performer”. His vocals were not as impressive as most of the cast and would have disappointed on a stage but his skills as a screen actor carried this off.
Anne Hathaway’s Fantine was wonderful. An understated and natural performance sung so beautifully. She had the rare gift of making Fantine’s words sound genuine and real and delivered a performance of I Dreamed A Dreamed better than I have ever heard before.
Samantha Barks sparkled as Éponine in her film début. She captured the longing for love and the destitution perfectly and created a very moving yet honest death scene.
Sadly, two performances failed to capture my imagination and heart. Both Amanda Seyfried’s performance as Cosette and Eddie Redmayne’s portrayal of Marius Pontmercy seemed lack-lustre. Both voices were beautiful and sung with passion but seemed to have little grasp of character. Seyfried seemed trapped in the “i’m beautiful and must be loved” moments for the entire film – a misplaced performance like this was awkward particularly as the young Cosette was crafted brilliantly by Isabelle Allen (the poster girl). Redmayne did little to stir the imagination or belief in his character, the performance was very one dimensional and his performance of Bring Him Home seemed heartless.
The three highlight performances came from Helena Bonham Carter (Madame Thénardier), Sacha Baron Cohen (Thénardier) and Daniel Huttlestone (Gavroche). Bonham-Carter and Baron-Cohen brought pure energy and joy to their roles. They made us laugh but we still disliked their ways, they made us applaud their audacity but still seem shocked by it, they made grotesque caricatures but made them real and believable. A joyous partnership that rivals her work with Johnny Depp and Tim Burton. Huttlestone is sure to receive many plaudits for his role – he brought the cheekiness, the slyness, the shrewdness and the humour that the role requires alive. A performance reminiscent of Jack Wild’s Artful Dodger in Oliver! I could give him no higher compliment than that.
Another bit of fun was noticing the stars from the West End and Broadway stage making cameo appearances like Hannah Waddingham, Daniel Evans, Kerry Ellis, Hadley Fraser and Gina Beck. However, the two special appearances came from Colm Wilkinson (Bishop of Digne) and Frances Ruffelle (a prostitute) as this linked the film with the original cast of Broadway and West End. Wilkinson played his role with as much charm and command as he always does and still wowed us with his undeniably beautiful voice.
Overall this film is an experience that I recommend anyone to see. Marks out of ten? I’d give it an eight!