LesMis-1Les Miserables is a property that has seen many an incarnation since Victor Hugo first took his pen to page to deliver the epic tale of revolution, love, loss and hope in 19th Century France. With its vast array of incredibly detailed and layered characters set against the backdrop of the French Revolution, Hugo’s novel was instantly recognized as a classic for the ages, as history has gone on to prove. Many an adaptation of Les Miserables have been conceived over the years from numerous television series to two previous film incarnations, but I am sure everyone would agree that the most successful and popular adaptation has been in the form of Alain Boublil, Claude-Michel Schönberg and Herbert Kretzmer’s juggernaut of a Musical Stage production. The most successful and longest running West End production to date, the stage musical is undoubtedly one of the greatest experiences one can have at the West End, what with its large catalogue of beautiful and heartfelt songs that faithfully express Hugo’s prose in a different format. A film adaptation surely was inevitable. And after nearly 30 years, we finally have it, and it’s certainly an entirely different experience.

The tale of Les Miserables is a hard one to describe, spanning many years and featuring many characters and sub-plots.  At its core, it is the tale of one man; Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman). A prisoner for 19 years, Valjean is released, but on a strict parole. After being touched by the mercy of a Priest, Valjean finds himself in the position in which to completely re-invent himself, complete with a new identity. However, he is forever pursued by the police inspector Javert (Russell Crowe) who lives only to uphold the law that he has sworn allegiance to. Hiding in secret under a new alias, Valjean comes across the tuberculosis riddled Fantine (Anne Hathaway), an ex-factory worker of his who has been driven to a life of hardship and prostitution in order to pay for the care of her young daughter Cosette. He agrees to raise Cosette, whilst continually staying one step ahead of the ever-preying Javert. As the years go by, Cosette grows in to a beautiful young woman (Amanda Seyfried) and gains the heart of the young revolutionary student Marius (Eddie Redmayne). However, though this new love has only just begun, it is soon threatened by the imminent and inevitable threat of revolution.LesMis-2

The film, the play and the book deal with an incredibly epic scale, presenting a tale concerned with the strength of human spirit, the hardships one faces and the power of hope. There are some very intimate character tales, but placed against the larger canvas of the Revolution backdrop makes the tale a truly epic piece. And this sense of grandeur has not been lost in its big screen translation. If anything, the free camera and the wonderful production design inject the film with the grand sense it needs to differentiate itself from the confines of a stage. The film form benefits the material in many ways, and much has been made of the live-on-set singing done by the cast. And yes, it very much adds an extra layer to the visceral and gritty nature of Tom Hooper’s style, allowing the very talented cast to convey every emotion possibly and give it their all; the environment effects the performance so therefore the singing, creating the most grounded and innovative musical I’ve most certainly seen in years. But it is also in Hooper’s employment of a very intimate style of camerawork that benefits the material. Hooper uses close-ups to brilliant effect, very intimate, hand-held camerawork, thrusts us in to the moment with the respective character, whilst also allowing us to see the actor’s veins literally pop out of their necks as they give their all in their performances. This is certainly something you could never experience when watching a stage production; a new level of intimacy that perfectly fits the highly emotional story, making certain characters fates feel all that more devastating. The make-up and hair department have also down a tremendous job to give the gritty, decaying feel to some of the more poverty-riddled characters, grounding the film in a deeper and incredibly visceral reality.

Hooper has been as faithful as he possibly could to the original musical, omitting only one notable song (Dog Eat Dog) and re-ordering others to allow for a clearer and more emotionally driven narrative progression (I Dreamed A Dream has been placed in a position that makes much more sense in terms of the character development). It is a delight to hear your favourite songs done in such a unique way that it feels like you are hearing them for the first time again, and this is largely thanks to the performances of the films cast who, for the most part, turn in fantastic performances; the ensemble number One Day More, the bare-boned Empty Chairs at Empty Tables and the resounding finale are particular stand outs (more on THE stand out later).

LesMis-3The film rides on the very capable shoulders of Hugh Jackman, whose impressive and incredibly powerful performance and singing correctly paint Valjean as the strong and noble sort-of antihero that he is. He struggles on the particularly hard numbers, but carries the notes on through with utter commitment, crafting his most impressive performance to date. Russell Crowe was a pleasant surprise; his voice is very unconventional and not what you’d expect, but it contrasts effectively to Jackman’s more conventional musical prowess. Crowe I believe has the hardest character to play, and he fully understands the conflicted layers of Javert, and his voice is both authoritative and equally emotionally driven and, just simply, works. Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Boham Carter have fun as the Thenardier’s, but are ultimately too jokey for the highly-realistic styling of the film. Baron Cohen threatens to send the film off its rails with his bizarre accent and general lampooning, but is thankfully not on the screen long enough to have too much of a damaging effect. Seyfried is delicate and sweet as Cosette, and Eddie Redmayne does very well for the most part as Marius. His singing is questionable at times, taking on the apparent inspiration of a certain Kermit the Frog. However, he delivers where it counts (Empty Chairs at Empty Tables). The relationship between Cosette and Marius is a hard one to swallow due to its spontaneity so the two young actors do struggle in that dynamic, but do still impress, if only because they make a good looking couple. It is Samantha Barks as Eponine, the third corner of this young love triangle, who makes a much grander impression with the much better role.

Now to the stand out song and performance of the movie, and they only last very briefly. Much has been made of Anne Hathaway’s brief performance as Fantine and her rendition of I Dreamed a Dream, what with a Golden Globe in the bag and a Oscar practically a certainty, and it is not hard to see why. Hathaway’s fragile and heart-wrenching performance is driven home by the angry and passionate rendition of the song that Les Miserables is arguably most famous for. She reclaims the song from the likes of Susan Boyle to give a version that is truly unique and all her own. It is also this scene that best demonstrates what such a stroke of genius it was to record the songs live, with authentic emotional and physical wains apparent on Hathaway’s tragically sad face, stirring the emotions in even the coldest of hearts. If Hathaway does end up walking away with the Bald Guy come the ceremony, it will certainly be a well deserved honour, as her performance LesMis-4creates an emotional benchmark for the rest of the film; a benchmark which it certainly struggles to, and never quite, reaches again.

My criticisms of the film, funnily enough, match the criticisms that I have of the stage musical itself. The second half, which is more devoted to spending time with the student revolutionaries is much less engaging then Valjean and Fantine’s tales which make up the majority of the superior first hour. A stage show also benefits from an intermission in which to stretch your legs, grab a drink or what have you; with a film, you aren’t given that luxury (unless you’re watching it in Alderney). As a result, the film feels like quite an exhausting task come the end of it, although you do feel you have accomplished something by managing to make it through to the end. Hooper has made choices that will not disappoint fans of the show, but that is at the cost of a lengthy running time that does test ones patience (and bladders). However, that does not stop his screen adaptation being as equally rousing and as stunning as the masterpiece of musical theatre from which it is based.

4/5- At times an exhausting journey to the finish line, but at the end of the day it’ll be worth it. Les Miserables is a suitably rousing, emotionally driven and passionately performed piece of musical cinema unlike anything you’ve quite seen before.

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