In the midst of a holiday season centered on cheer and merriment, some moviegoing audiences will instead find themselves on the brink of sobbing alongside characters like Fantine in the latest film adaption of the musical phenomenon “Les Misérables.”
The film, originally a book by Victor Hugo and more widely known as the musical by Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg, marks the latest work of director Tom Hooper (“The King’s Speech”). The film makes a seamless transition to the big screen thanks to the substantial emotional grit and musical numbers, which immerse the viewer into a movie that feels like an on-stage performance.
The film takes us to early nineteenth century France to follow the story of Jean Valjean, played by Hugh Jackman, a peasant on a journey for redemption after serving 19 years in jail for stealing bread. Valjean breaks his parole by escaping jail to start his life anew, but is relentlessly tracked down by police inspector Javert, played by Russell Crowe.
Valjean moves through life in this revolutionary period in France, with his morality constantly put to the test as he forms relationships with a group of young revolutionaries, an adopted daughter and the relentless policeman on his trail.
Jackman is perfect as Valjean. As an actor who started out on Broadway, he delivers a pleasant surprise for moviewatchers that may have fixated him to his gritty past roles such as Wolverine. In “Les Misérables,” he channels a very contemplative and angst-ridden Valjean with mastery. His opening song “Soliloquy,” both passionate and sad, immediately sets the tone for a spectacular movie.
In addition to Russell Crowe, the supporting cast also boasts A-list actors Anne Hathaway as peasant mother Fantine and Amanda Seyfried as her daughter Cosette. Out of all the supporting characters, Hathaway easily steals the show. Her character Fantine is plagued with anguish that Hathaway channels superbly, leaving the audience feeling her pain themselves. It also helps that her voice is phenomenal.
The film doesn’t just have large musical numbers (though there are plenty), but the entire thing is sung-through, meaning that even the dialogue is sung and not spoken. Yet “Les Misérables” manages to pull off an entirely harmonic plot without coming off as tacky or cheap.
In actuality, the film executes the music superbly thanks to the different approach to the on-set filming process. Unlike most musical films, which pre-record songs in a studio and overlay them over the film, the actors in “Les Misérables” actually sung their parts live as they were being filmed. This process made the emotions and songs much more raw and realistic, a major highlight of the movie, rather than a polished studio record.
The cinematography of the movie also captured this rawness in its contrast between intimate close-ups and the spectacle of large-scale shots. The film makes a habit of angles on the characters’ faces with long, focused shots during solos that honed in and captured the emotions of the characters.
In contrast, the larger-scale shots put the viewers in view of a grand town square on an overcast and gloomy French day, with the streets swarming with crowds of rioting citizens who don a mix of the national colors red, white and blue. Unlike the Broadway show that inspired it, “Les Misérables” does not offer the stationary view of watching a stage, but makes an effort to put the audience into the movie with these specific camera angles.
However, one thing to be noted to the film’s detriment is that it starts to drag on near the end. The movie is best classified into three distinct chapters. The first two chapters of the plot are so short in comparison to the last one that it becomes very noticeable. Because the movie is a drama, it is not meant to be fast-paced the whole time, and thus the length becomes noticeable after two hours of emotional turmoil.
Die-hard fans of the musical will love the film either way. For an audience less familiar with the “Misérables” phenomenon, as long as they know to expect a musical, then they can expect to see one of the finest movie musicals in a while. The songs are inspiring and the emotions are well-executed. “Les Misérables” brings back the old feel-good vibes of a lavish musical and the grandeur of an epic story that has since become a thing of the past.