Director: Tom Hooper
Starring: Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, Anne Hathaway, Eddie Redmayne, Amanda Seyfried, Samantha Barks, Aaron Tveit, Helena Bonham Carter, Sacha Baron Cohen
Les Misérables first appeared on stage on the West End in 1985 and in the 27 years since it has become one of the most successful musicals of all time. That said, it was still a bit of a risk for Tom Hooper to announce it as his next film project after winning an Oscar for The King’s Speech. It was always going to be a high profile event film, and let’s face it, history has shown us that when you get a big budget musical wrong it can be really, really bad. Hooper assembled a great cast lead by Hugh Jackman – amazingly making his first movie musical despite his strong musical pedigree. But early critical reviews were mixed. Some called it a mess, others heralded it as one of the year’s best. So I was really keen to see it for myself, particularly as I saw the stage production in London earlier in the year and loved it.
The big experiment with Les Misérables, and again part of what made it a risky project,was having the actors sing live. Usually when you make a musical one of the first things you do is get the cast into a recording studio and record an album. Then a couple of months later when it is time for the shoot, the actors simply lip-synch to the mastered recording. With Les Misérables, Tom Hooper decided that he wanted his actors to sing live on each take. The major advantage of doing it this way is it frees up the actors creatively. When you record the songs in advance, the actors are forced to make many of their acting choices well before getting on set, and once on set they are restricted by the necessity of matching up with the recording. This would be far from ideal for a musical like Les Misérables where so much of the emotional crux of the story is delivered through song. This greater level of freedom in performance for the actors has resulted in a musical which is not necessarily as brassy and robust as the stage show, but packs an incredible emotional punch.
This different approach was then complemented by the way the musical numbers have been shot. Unlike a traditional musical, Les Misérables only features one heavily choreographed number, the comical ‘Master of the House’ performed by Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter’s grotesque tavern owners. The other numbers are shot very simply, often in close-up. The beauty of this approach is you get to see characters faces, something you don’t get on stage. Les Misérables is a very tragic, very emotional story, and the impact of being able to see the faces of characters as they sing is quite powerful. Never is this more apparent than when Anne Hathaway sings ‘I Dreamed a Dream,’ shot entirely in one shot, a medium close-up.
Hugh Jackman was always the logical choice to play Jean Valjean. With his baritone voice, his award-winning musical theatre experience, broad chest and handsome features, Jackman seems born to play the part. As Valjean, he carries much of the emotional weight of the film and he does it admirably, imbuing the character with a real strength and masculinity. The film’s other clear stand out is Anne Hathaway as Fantine. She delivers one of the most gut-wrenching performances you will ever see, demonstrating her versatility in a year which also saw her playing Catwoman in The Dark Knight Rises. While Jackman will be in the mix come award season, Hathaway can start deciding where she wants to put her Best Supporting Actress Oscar now.
One of the big questions in the lead up to the film was the singing ability of Russell Crowe. Everyone knew Jackman and Hathaway could sing, but the fact that Crowe used to have a band, Thirty Odd Foot of Grunt, not to mention his old Russ le Roq days, didn’t have people convinced he was the right man to tackle the demanding role of Javert. This concern was not helped by the fact that his voice was notably absent from a couple of the early trailers. As it turns out, he does alright. His voice is nowhere near as full as some of the others in the film, but you get used to it. He definitely looks the part, and still manages to give some emotional depth to the character.
Hooper’s film is a very faithful adaptation of the musical, plus the requisite new song, ‘Suddenly,’ so that they have something to submit for Award consideration. This faithfulness means that if there was anything in particular that irked you about the stage musical, it still will in the film. In my case, it is the fact that Cosette and Marius are still really boring. It also means that, as is the case with many film musicals, the critical reception will be varied. Musicals are really divisive. People tend to like them or they don’t and if you are someone who can’t get behind the concept of a musical, you’re never going to enjoy one. Even people who like movie musicals may struggle with this one as the ratio of dialogue to song is much closer to an opera than to a normal movie musical. So with a film like this it is difficult to make a general judgement. Instead, I can only speak as a person who enjoys musicals, and who particularly loves this one. I thought it was brilliant.
Rating – ★★★★
Review by Duncan McLean