So you’ve just won your first Oscar for The Kings Speech? The movie world is your Oyster. Doors are opened that had previously been closed. So what do you pick as your next project?
Not one to sit on his laurels, Tom Hooper opted to take on a project that is beloved by many a musical theatre goer and try his hand at directing Les Misérables. This is a project as far away from The Kings Speech as you could get. And I am pleased to say that Hooper plays a blinder with his treatment of the source material.
Having never seen the musical nor read the book by Victor Hugo, I didn’t know what to expect and to be honest I was a bit apprehensive about going to see the film. Yet, by the closing of the opening number these fears were put to rest.
For those unfamiliar with the stage musical or the book, the main plot is about Jean Valjean and how one chance meeting and a little bit of humanity changed the course of his life. The film opens with Jean Valjean serving his last day in prison before being paroled. He has served nineteen years for the crime of stealing a loaf of bread in order to feed his sister and her child. Though he has his freedom, he will forever be a marked man as his identity papers show that he has served time.
On leaving the prison, all Jean Valjean wants to do is start an honest, free life, yet at every turn his options are thwarted by this albatross around his neck. It is only when a kindly priest takes him and gives him shelter, does his life change though at first it seems he has resigned himself to living with the label he has been assigned. Jean Valjean steals the silverware from the priest and is instantly caught. When he is brought back to the church, but rather than the let the police take him back into custody, the priest pretends that he gave him the silver to sell. It is this one act that changes Jean Valjeans life. He casts of his shackles as a former prisoner and re-invents himself as a respectable businessman and major of a small town.
His past is never far behind him, for one of his jailers Javert makes it his life’s mission to hunt down Jean Valjean for breaking his parole by disappearing. Its this constant looking over his shoulder that forces Jean Valjean to keep running, in an effort to try and put his past behind him.
One can’t talk about Les Miserables without mentioning one of the most tragic Heroines of literature, Fantine. Fantine is a young woman who had fallen for the charms of an unknown man, only to end up with child and unmarried. Very much like Jean Valjean, she tries to do her best to care for her child, but societies restrictions prevent her from making an honest living. While Jean Valjean had a saviour in the form of the priest, Fantine is not so lucky and she is forced to sell herself in order to provide money for the innkeepers who are looking after her child Cosette.
There are other plotlines in this film, but to go over each one would take this full review and to be honest if it were not for the excellent performances by the cast then you could have a brilliant script and director and still end up with a terrible film.
Before going to see this film, I was aware that Hugh Jackman had done musical theatre before and it shows. Jean Valjean is a pivotal character to the whole film and Jackman takes this responsibility on with great ease. We have seen him in action films before, but this role really demonstrates what a versatile actor he really is. Its a joy to watch him on screen and he seems to bring out the best in all the actors he works with onscreen.
Russell Crowe has been getting a bit of hard time for his portrayal as the formidable and reserved Javert. I agree that he is not a strong singer and it is shown in the film, but for me it worked. Javert seems to live by a very strict code that leaves little leeway. The law should be adhered to by everyone and you should atone for your sins. Crowe conveys this unyielding authorities figure very well. Many will argue with me over his portrayal of Javert, but I did think he brought this character to life pretty reasonably. From what we can tell, he would not be a character who easily displayed any emotion, especially through song.
And now on to Anne Hathaway, who took method acting to its extreme in order to portray the tragic Fantine. There were lots of reports in the news about how she lost so much weight and had her cut to play the emancipated Fantine. Her dedication to her art pays off in spades and I defy anyone not to be moved by her performance of “I Dreamed a Dream.” It is hard to recognise that this was the young woman who once played Mia in the Princess Diaries. She has matured and grown as an actress and this role really does demonstrate that. Hathaway really does deserve the praise she has been receiving from other reviewers.
The only bit of real miscasting I could see was that of the adult Cossette, played by Amanda Seifried. True, she was in Mama Mia, but the fact that all the singing was done live on set shows how she really lacks in the vocal skills of her co-stars. It is a shame as she was so good in Mamma Mia. For me she really was the only one who just didn’t hit the mark
A final mention should go to a relatively unknown actress in this film, Samantha Barker. She managed to beat many well known Hollywood A-listers to the role of Éponine after starring in the 25th Anniversary celebration of the stage show. She is just marvellous in the role and brings across the hurt and despair of Éponine excellently. The fact that she can really sing, gives it that bit of oomph. Its this fact that shows Seifried really was below par. I have been fortunate to see Barker play the role of Nancy in the touring company of Oliver! She is truly a gifted actress and I hope we see more of her in the future
Overall, Les Misérables is one of those rare gems of a movie that only comes around once in a little while. Hooper shows his gift as a director, showcasing the epic feel of it all. At two and a half hours long, the film is wrong, but Hooper expertly manages to keep you enthralled as he tells the tale of these characters.
I am familiar with musical theatre and at times it can be hard to follow everything that is going on, on stage. Repeat viewings are sometimes necessary in order to catch the bits you missed. This film gives you that luxury of following the characters much more easily, without it feeling forced. I loved this film and it is definitely going on my “Must Buy List” when it comes out on DVD
RATING: 4.5 Stars
LES MISÉRABLES (2013)
DIRECTOR: Tom Hooper
STARRING: Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, Anne Hathaway, Amanda Seyfried, Sasha Baron Cohan, Helena Bonhnam Carter, Samantha Barker
GENRE: Musical, Drama