Les Misérables is one of the most successful stage musicals of all time, having played in London and around the world for over 25 years. However, the classic musical had never received a full on film adaptation, until now. And it lives up to the source material, providing an equally engaging and entertaining musical tragedy that is rarely seen in film musicals. Starring Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, Anne Hathaway and Amanda Seyfried, the Tom Hooper directed film follows Jackman’s Jean Valjean and the people around him, superimposed on the French Revolution. Watch the trailer after the jump and the read my review.
Les Misérables will go down as one of the greatest musical films of all time. Tom Hooper, fresh off his Oscar for The King’s Speech, takes full advantage of the medium to create a world more real than any stage show ever could. The sets are massive, the cinematography perfect and the music fits in flawlessly. The film benefits from a great source and doesn’t stray far from the original stage show. Cameron Mackintosh, who produces the stage show, was a major creative consultant on the film. His influence is shown in everything, especially when members of the stage cast show up in various roles. All of those things were expected from a film from Hooper, but one thing that makes Les Misérables unique is that the entire cast sings live.
Singing live improves Les Misérables more than it would first appear. In most musicals, the songs are pre-recorded months before filming and the actors mime along the tracks. Now the actors, especially the main cast, can control their songs anyway they choose. And Hooper can make changes on the fly while filming. It makes a world of difference, especially in the major solos from Jackman and Hathaway. The emotion in their words and faces sounds and seems so real with the actors putting all their focus on the vocals. I’ll get to the cast later, but every singer holds their own the whole time.
Which is especially important because the entire movie is sung. Unlike other musicals like The Wizard of Oz and Wicked have talking and singing mixed together. Les Misérables instead has less than 20 spoken words, which is not as crazy as it sounds. It feels organic and after a few tracks, I couldn’t imagine it any other way. Even though it is superimposed upon a historical event, the singing puts the story in its own world, a world where singing all the time is normal. Not forced like in Greece or Hairspray. The way the singing is handled in this film should be the standard every other musical strives for. It’s that good.
Now the cast themselves, and what a cast it is. Besides the previously mentioned stars, Sacha Baron Cohen, Helena Bonham Carter and Eddie Redmayne also play prominent roles. With Mackintosh heavily involved, actors like Samantha Barks and Colm Wilkinson and Daniel Huttlestone all were able to make appearances after being a part of the London production. Being a musical with only singing, the actors performances were all key to making it a success. And they all play their parts very well.
Jackman is the star of this film. With his character Jean Valjean being the centerpiece of the plot, Jackman has the most lines and he doesn’t miss a beat. Having previously won a Tony award for his Broadway role in the musical The Boy From OZ, Jackman’s skills as a singer and actor were never in question. But people who only know him as X-Men’s Wolverine will be in for a surprise. Jackman sells every note he sings perfectly. Many of the lyrics are his character thinking out loud and the way Jackman expresses the songs gives an amazing look into Valjean’s struggles and pressures to be an honest man. When he sings “Bring Me Home,” the power in his voice shows how much Valjean (and Jackman) care about the school boys going to battle (especially Marius). Very few Hollywood stars could pull off the complex role Valjean is but Jackman can and does. He already has a Golden Globe nomination for the role and I expect an Oscar one to come easily in January.
The performance everybody has been talking about online has been Anne Hathaway as the doomed Fantine, whose life falls in a chaotic spiral the whole time she is on-screen. Hooper rearranged the songs so Fantine’s famous “I Dreamed I Dream” solo now occurs when her character has hit rock bottom. That song alone should seal Hathaway the Best Supporting Actress Oscar. It is one long take, the whole song is sung with only Hathaway’s face in a close-up. The anguish and pain she is feeling, the utter hopelessness of her life is seen in Hathaway’s face. There are tears, there are pauses for breath, it is the most believable and tragic performance I’ve seen this year. Those who know the story know Fantine is only alive for the first 30-45 minutes, but that’s enough time for Hathaway to leave her mark. Just listen to her singing in the next clip and you’ll understand why the Oscar is easily hers to lose.
Russell Crowe plays the main antagonist, Inspector Javert and although his singing doesn’t compete with Jackman’s, it is still really good. Crowe began his career as a musician and still releases original songs with his friend Alan Doyle. Crowe has always been an actor though and he was cast perfectly as the no-nonsense Javert. He is overpowered by Jackman when they perform duets, but his two solos (especially his last one) are just as powerful as Jackman’s. I do have one small issue with his character, and it is more of an observation. Valjean treats Javert like he would any other person, even though they are sworn enemies. Yet Javert dismisses the kindness given to him and refuses to give up his pursuit of Valjean. Sure it keeps the story moving, but I can’t imagine many people would react the same way as him. Either way, Crowe plays the role as well as expected from the Oscar winner. There won’t be awards for him from this film, but he still does a great job.
In the second half of the film, there is a love triangle that forms between Seyfried’s Cosette, Barks’ Eponine and Redmayne’s Marius. Eponine is deeply in love with Marius, but he sees her only as a friend and instead longs for Cosette. All three actors are good in their roles, but Barks’ is the star in this group. She played Eponine on stage in London for Mackintosh and was brought back for the film. And it’s easy to see why. She is a star in the making. Seyfried (Mamma Mia) and Redmayne (My Week With Marilyn) are Hollywood actors with notable credits to their name, but Barks blows them out of the water here. Her heartfelt rendition of “On My Own” is the closest comparison to Hathaway’s “I Dreamed a Dream”. Bark’s also sings the whole song in one long take and brings just as much emotion to the song as humanly possible. When Eponine dies, it had more emotional punch (for me anyways) than Fantine’s. This girl longed to be loved by all the people in her life and ways ignored until she was all but dead. It doesn’t get more tragic than that. Bark’s will be getting calls from Hollywood for this performance. She has the potential to build a great film career after this role.
Eponine’s parents are part of her tragedy and they are played superbly by Cohen and Carter. Their characters, the Thenardier’s are innkeepers who steal from their customers and who take care (somewhat) of young Cosette. Cohen and Carter did sing in Tim Burton’s Sweeny Todd, but they are more known for their crazy characters, which are the skills they bring to this role. Even though the singing isn’t as good as the above cast, it is still entertaining, with many visual jokes and one liners from both of them. Though it is a small role, Cohen and Carter run with it and do a great job.
The cast also includes a couple of child actors, who both have important roles and do a great job. 10-year old Isabelle Allen plays young Cosette in the first half of the film in her first film credit. She has a great solo, “Castle on a Cloud” where Allen shows off her skills at singing and acting. It is both adorable and powerful; the lyrics and her acting giving a very good introduction to her character. 12-year old Daniel Huttlestone plays Gavroche, a boy who plays an important part in the revolution. He sings “On My Own” and other smaller parts very well and has a great solo where he climbs around a politicians carriage, singing about the forthcoming revolution. Both young actors have a strong future based on their performances here.
Les Misérables is one of the best movies of the year. It already has five Golden Globe nominations and I know it will win some Oscars in February. Musicals will never be the same after this; Hooper has redefined the genre and made possibly the greatest musical film ever. I had thought Silver Linings Playbook for Best Picture, but I would not be surprised if Les Misérables took the prize. Everyone should see this in theaters. If it becomes a box office success, all future musicals will have a lot to live up to. Which should lead to some great movies in the coming years.