Title: Les Misérables
Directed By: Tom Hooper
Starring: Hugh Jackman, Anne Hathaway, Russell Crowe, Eddie Redmayne, Samantha Barks, Amanda Seyfried, Sacha Baron Cohen, Helena Bonham Carter, Isabelle Allen, Aaron Tveit, Colm Wilkinson, Daniel Huttlestone
I never cared much for “Les Misérables” back when every other girl in my class had to sing “Castle on a Cloud” at the school talent show and, it turns out, I don’t care all that much for it in movie form either, even when it’s an immensely impressive production.
In case you’re like me and never bothered to see the musical or read the book, “Les Misérables” focuses on Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman), a man enslaved for 19 years for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his starving nephew. After finally being released, Valjean violates his parole to start anew. Even though he really does turn over a new leaf, running an honest business and doing good whenever he can, the über by-the-book policeman, Javert (Russell Crowe), is determined to make Valjean pay.
Still, nothing stops Valjean from being a good man. As Fantine’s (Anne Hathaway) life spins out of control, Valjean comes to her aid, agreeing to care for her young daughter, Cosette. Valjean rescues Cosette from her unloving and eccentric caretakers, Thénardier and Madame Thénardier (Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter), and raises her as his own until she catches the eye of the young Revolutionary, Marius (Eddie Redmayne).
You’ve seen that singing live featurette time and time again; you know what’s coming – famous faces, incredible voices, mesmerizing set design and pitch perfect costume work. While the film’s little newcomers, Isabelle Allen as young Cosette and Daniel Huttlestone as Gavorche, put up a good effort at stealing the spotlight, truly stellar casting results in both high profile and high quality leads. Hathaway’s Fantine might not get much screen time, but she easily makes the biggest impression with her rendition of “I Dreamed a Dream.” The tune works wonders in the film’s trailer, and then in the full feature it takes on an entirely new form, the song being shot in one single close-up on Hathaway, making the moment incredibly raw and heart wrenching.
Jackman clearly gives Valjean everything he’s got, seamlessly taking him from time period to time period. He’s also a master of chemistry, selling the tension between Valjean and Javert, his compassion for Fantine and his undying love for Cosette. Jackman’s sole snag is the fact that he’s in the majority of the movie. As one of the only characters that comes with us through each and every portion, he sings a lot. He’s got a spectacular voice, but after two and half hours of tunes, and often unmelodic ones that sound like sung words rather than musical songs, it can become just the slightest bit monotonous.
Crowe runs into a similar problem as someone who frequently sings the same tune, but still, his voice is one of the nicest surprises of the bunch and his character’s calamity the most memorable, and even disturbing to a degree. Seyfried makes for a fine older Cosette and has a beautiful voice, but as Cosette doesn’t do all that much besides trail behind Valjean and wait for Marius to come for a visit, Éponine (Samantha Barks) becomes the more engaging of the film’s two young women. Similarly, Redmayne makes for a fine Marius, but he does tend to get swallowed up by the booming sound and presence of the student revolutionaries as a whole.
With just about every cast member shedding at least one perfect tear mid-song and the tale being a bit gloomy overall, Bonham Carter and Baron Cohen offer up some much-needed comedic relief. “Master of the House” is the most energetic and entertaining number of the bunch, and the Thénardiers are truly funny. You’d think the gag of Baron Cohen constantly mispronouncing Cosette’s name would grow old, but he earns a laugh each and every time.
While much of the cast’s success comes from the skill of the actors themselves, they also owe a great deal to director Tom Hooper who made an epic, but personal piece. Wide span shots of gorgeous production design flawlessly set the scene, but then Hooper comes in for the close-up, revealing even the tiniest of details, whether it be the grain in the walls or a facial blemish. Hooper establishes this shooting style early and sticks to it, making it quite easy to adjust. His preference to put the camera as close to his actors as possible, softening the background, gives the imagery a 3D-like quality, yet, paradoxically, “Les Misérables” is almost entirely devoid of flashy visual tricks. If the camera moves, it’s because an actor’s blocking or performance calls for it. It’s Hooper’s dedication to putting those performances first that makes “Les Misérables” a new breed of movie musical.
Then again, it still is a movie musical and if that’s not your thing, “Les Misérables” probably won’t change that. At a whopping 157-minutes, the film can be a lot to take in, especially for someone who might not be able to adapt to the all-singing format. There are moments that even the most adamant naysayer won’t be able to deny like “I Dreamed a Dream,” “Do You Hear the People Sing,” “On My Own,” and “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables,” just to name a few. They could wind up being standalone triumphs, but within a grander world with which it’s harder to connect.
However, have no fear, lifelong fans. Hooper, writer William Nicholson and the producing team did the beloved source material justice, handling it with the utmost care and bringing it to the big screen in the most effective way possible. As for the rest of us, if “Les Misérables” the movie doesn’t get you to crack and fall for it, it’ll at least make you appreciate a handful of many cinematic achievements.