Les Misérables

© 2012 Ray Wong

As star Hugh Jackman said, Les Misérables is the Mt. Everest of all musicals. Possibly one of the most beloved musicals of all times, the film version is long overdue (27 years to be exact). Under the risk-taking direction of Oscar-winning director Tom Hooper (King's Speech), the film is a triumph is many ways.

The story follows the protagonist, Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) from the time he was on parole after serving a 20-year sentence for stealing a loaf of bread. Downtrodden, Valjean decides to steal from a priest (Colm Wilkinson) and gets caught, but the priest's act of kindness opens Valjean's eyes to the meaning of love and respect, and he vows to use the priest's gift to start anew. Valjean breaks parole and disappears, and Inspector Javert (Russell Crowe) vows to track down and bring Valjean to justice.

Years later, Valjean becomes a factory owner and mayor of a small town under a fake name. Due to his negligence, a worker of his, Fantine (Anne Hathaway) is tossed out on the street. Fantine later succumbs to prostitution and becomes very ill. Knowing what he did, Valjean vows to dying Fantine that he will take care of her daughter Cosette (Isabelle Allen).

Eight years later, the students in Paris are staging a revolt against the oppressive government. One of the students, Marius (Eddie Redmayne), however, is smitten by Cosette (Amanda Seyfried), now a beautiful young lady. Their young love, however, is cut short when Javert is hot on Valjean's trail again. When Marius is wounded at the barricade during a battle, Valjean risks his freedom and saves Marius. Through Marius and Cosette, Valjean finally finds the meaning of true love and salvation.

Hugh Jackman (The Prestige) is arguably one of the few actors who can play Valjean in this film musical. Known as an action hero and a romantic leading man, Jackman also has the musical theater training to prepare him for the role of a lifetime. His Valjean is physically impressive but soulful and gentle and virtuous. Jackman gives an affecting and sincere performance and anchors the entire film.  As his antagonist, Russell Crowe (The Next Three Days) has taken a different approach to playing the famous inspector. Here, Crowe gives Javert a soul and the kind of vulnerability you don't expect. His rock-opera singing voice may not be the best in the cast, but Crowe's nuanced performance is a welcome interpretation.

Anne Hathaway (The Dark Knight Rises) is the standout here, what with her dedication to playing the doomed, tragic Fantine. She's given a tour-de-force performance and in just one show-stopping number, I Dreamed a Dream, Hathaway has propelled herself as the frontrunner in this year's Oscar race, and deserves all the accolades she's been getting. Likewise, Eddie Redmayne (My Week with Marilyn) surprises and delights as the love-sick Marius. Redmayne has a beautiful voice, but more important, he brings a boyish, innocent charm and deep emotions to the often underwritten role (at least on stage).

Equally underwritten in the stage musical is Cosette, often serving as a plot device rather than a true character. But Amanda Seyfried (In Time) manages to give her a voice and make us believe that she is the light for Fantine, Marius and Valjean. Samantha Barks is also excellent as Eponine, the poor girl who is secretly in love with Marius. Sasha Baron Cohen (Hugo) and Helena Bonham Carter (The King's Speech) give the serious film much needed comic relief as the Thenardiers.

Adapted from the popular musicals, which itself is an adaptation of Victor Hugo's classic novel, the screenplay actually is better developed than the book by Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg. William Nicholson (Gladiator) has done a fine job matching the musical with Hugo's original material, making small and big changes that make the story more sensible and, in many ways, more gritty and real than the musical spectacle. For example, Fantine's descent to her despair is now more evident and believable.

Still, the material has to work with the confine of the musical structure. Director Tom Hooper has made some risky decisions that may or may not have worked, depending on who you ask. The die-hard fans may have trouble understanding or accepting the changes he made, and people who are not familiar with the musical may not understand his vision. The most important decision Hooper made was that he insisted on the actors singing live, instead of lip-synching to pre-recorded soundtracks. The result is an amazingly emotional roller-coaster ride as the actors are free to make their acting choices while singing live.

To enhance that emotional impact and be even more "up close and personal," Hooper chose to film the actors, especially during their solos, with close ups and unconventional camera angles. The result may not be completely pleasing -- in fact it may unnerve many people who are not used to such cinematic techniques -- but the close ups and strange camera work heighten the emotions to a level that is almost overwhelming. For example, the unflinching long single-shot close-up of Anne Hathaway's I Dreamed a Dream is overpowering, and the Dutch angles and fast editing during the Lovely Ladies sequence made me uncomfortable and feeling queasy, exactly the way I should be feeling. Despite some missteps (the frantic editing may not always work), Tom Hooper is a genius.

Les Misérables does have its flaws. It's not a perfect film by any means. It's not going to convert non-musical audiences to avid fans. It may not please the die-hard fans of the stage show. Tom Hooper's unconventional direction may irk some people who expect a sweeping epic. But despite all that, Hooper has succeeded in bringing the two forms -- musical and film -- together on an epic, larger-than-life scale that offers both the intimacy and sweeping vistas that the stage show cannot. It's an emotional ride with a rousing score and a beautiful message. It's les incredible!

Stars: Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, Anne Hathaway, Amanda Seyfried, Eddie Redmayne, Samantha Barks, Sasha Baron Cohen, Helena Bonham Carter, Aaron Tveit
Director: Tom Hooper
Writer: William Nicholson (based on musical by Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg, novel by Victor Hugo)
Distributor: Universal
MPAA Rating:  R for suggestive and sexual material, violence, thematic elements
Running Time: 157 minutes 


Script - 8
Performance - 9
Direction - 8
Cinematography - 9
Music/Sound - 9
Editing - 7
Production - 8

Total - 8.2 out of 10.0 

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