“In my life”….okay I won’t start singing that! As someone who hasn’t fully embraced the musical genre during my recent surge into film criticism, I was intrigued by the huge buzz surrounding Tom Hooper’s big-screen adaptation of the beloved West End sing-a-long Les Misérables. Having been a fan of Hooper’s work on The Damned United and the Oscar-winning The King’s Speech, I refused to doubt Hooper’s skills as a film-maker especially after he was able to attract big stars like Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe and Anne Hathaway to the lavish production. Recent cases like Phantom of the Opera, Dreamgirls and Nine had shown that most modern day musicals lacked the flair and artistic elements of the 1950s/1960s classics but Les Mis promised to bring back the old-school approach of the ‘cinematic’ all-singing spectacle. So far, the consensus has been good for the film as it secured three Golden Globe wins and several Oscar nominations. But would this be enough to make me belt out the beloved tunes afterwards or ‘look down’ on a potential disappointment?….
In 19th Century France, convict Jean Valjean (Jackman) breaks his parole and goes on the run for several years whilst pursued by Inspector Javert (Crowe). During his quest for redemption, he becomes the owner of a factory and shows concern about one of his former employees Fantine (Hathaway) who is forced to become a prostitute in order to raise money to help her daughter Cosette. Valjean offers to look after the youngster and is again forced to flee his current surroundings when Javert discovers his true identity. A few years later, a teenage Cosette (Seyfried) falls in love with Marius (Redmayne) but their potential romance is overshadowed by his union with the students as they rebel against the French Army. Broken dreams personal sacrifice threaten to define the outcome of these treasured characters.
Fans of the Les Misérables stage show can be assured that this big-screen adaptation certainly doesn’t disappoint as Tom Hooper presents an epic take on the classic tale. It is as grand a musical you will see in recent times as he relies on the big and bold production values such as large historical sets and a mass variety of cast members and extras to make it look and feel truly breathtaking. Every musical number is majestically presented in the right environment whether it be the prisoners singing ‘Look Down’ whilst dragging a large boat or the overwhelming amount of people booming out ‘One Day More?’ (my favourite song of the entire production) in a carefully-crafted montage. What makes this particular cinematic-musical stand out compared to recent efforts is the decision of having all the main cast members sing their performances live rather than lip-synch. Most musicals that use lip-synching tend to make singing performances seem fake though Les Mis goes against that theme as the actor’s abilities to talk and sing at the same time proves a match made in heaven throughout the two-and-half exhibition. While most of the film is based on the West End melody, the Victor Hugo novel does get a look in with Fantine’s surrender of her teeth, Marius’s grandfather and a brief hint of Eponine and Gavrioche’s sibling relationship being just a few of the important references that will please novelistic fans.
With Hooper’s directing career on the rise, he is successful in bringing in a talented ensemble of actors, most of them with singing experience, and allowing them to belt out their best renditions in order to make this overwhelming spectacle a memorable one. Hugh Jackman (whose singing chops come from his time on Broadway and his Oscar hosting duties) ditches the Wolverine claws and becomes the heart and soul of Les Mis as his heroic character Jean Valjean struggles to move on from his crime-ridden past yet manages to redeem himself with his good-heartedness to young Cosette. His fellow Aussie co-star Russell Crowe may lack the power of Javert’s voice (harshly criticised by others) compared to the previous portrayals of that character but he still lends authority and grit through his facial expressions. Amanda Seyfried and Eddie Redmayne both provide delightful chemistry in their romantic sub-plot with Seyfried resurrecting her sweet vocals that made her stand out in Mamma Mia! Redmayne though, is one of the bigger surprises as his charming and emotional singing make him one of the best in show especially during his ‘Empty Chairs at Empty Tables’ number. However there is a deserved chance to shine on the big-screen for the lovely Samantha Barks in her role as Eponine (a character she previously played in the 25th Anniversary Concert). Her soulful rendition of ‘On my Own’ remains one of the more powerful songs of Les Mis and many will hope that she gets the opportunity to go far in her emerging film career. While it may all seem doom and gloom with the plot, there is comic-relief provided by colourful duo Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen as they have fun in their entertaining roles as the scheming Thenardiers. But the one performance that deserves all the recognition it is currently getting is that of Anne Hathaway in her tragic turn as Fantine. While she may have limited screen time, she brings a lot of depth to her physically-challenging portrayal of a poor woman who is forced to ditch her hair and humiliate herself in order to help her daughter. Once she reaches the lowest point of her life, she belts out a truly breathtaking and emotionally-charged rendition of the iconic ‘I Dreamed a Dream’ (eat your heart out Susan Boyle!) that will leave audiences wiping away their own tears. The Oscar surely beckons for her!
Given the epic scope of this big-screen adaptation, Hooper does at times let himself down with the way he shoots the film. Though there are some majestic shots to admire throughout, his decision to use close-ups for many of the musical numbers does leave you feeling a bit claustrophobic especially when you have a lot of actors in your face as they sing. Fortunately, the worst case of that occurs early on during the ‘At the End of the Day’ segment as the constant focus on the annoying factory workers becomes an irritating habit. Fans of the West End musical will also have to face up to the disappointment of seeing a couple of songs cut during the transition to film including Madame Thenardier’s ‘Dog Eats Dog’ which is probably why Bonham Carter doesn’t have as much screen-time as her on-screen husband.
VERDICT: Tom Hooper’s mesmerising adaptation of Les Misérables is a pure big-screen spectacle that is strengthened by its wonderful ensemble cast. Do you hear this critic sing? Yes you certainly do!