After a string of highly-anticipated movies that turned out to be disappointments (“The Bourne Legacy,” “Taken 2,” “The Hobbit”) I’m delighted to report that “Les Misérables” – brought to the screen by “King’s Speech” director Tom Hooper” – is a riveting cinematic adaptation. Not only does it succeed as a version of the stage musical, but it’s also a fantastic retelling of the source material (head-and-shoulders above the 1998 Liam Neeson version).
The film, like the sprawling novel, spans several decades: convicted felon Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman), his soul redeemed through the sacrificial charity of a kind bishop (Colm Wilkinson, Broadway’s original Valjean), changes his name and becomes the mayor of a small French community. In so doing, however, he breaks his parole…attracting the notice of obsessive police inspector Javert (Russell Crowe). Shortly after rescuing Fantine (Anne Hathaway), a young woman forced by desperate circumstances into prostitution, Valjean is compelled to disclose his true identity. Pursued by Javert, Valjean adopts Fantine’s young daughter Cosette and flees to Paris.
The story then skips forward several years, picking up on the eve of student uprisings in Paris. Cosette (Amanda Seyfried), by now a comely young woman, falls in love with revolutionary Marius (Eddie Redmayne). But with Javert still on the prowl, Valjean fears for her safety…and, when violence ultimately breaks out, tragedy appears unavoidable.
“Les Misérables” is a grand, dynamic story crying out for a cinematic adaptation…and this movie delivers in spades. Somehow, it manages to be huge and intense and dramatic without sacrificing intimacy. This is almost wholly due to the magnificent performances of the principal cast. Jackman inhabits the role of Valjean, Crowe (surprisingly) pulls off a perfect Javert, and Hathaway deserves an Oscar for her soul-wrenching portrayal of Fantine. Once the film transitions to its second half, some of the tortured interpersonal intensity fades…but what it loses in rawness, the movie makes up for in sweeping audiovisual spectacle.
“Les Misérables” is not a subtle movie, but Victor Hugo was never a particularly subtle writer. Indeed, this picture’s grandiosity works to its own advantage: what might’ve seemed too melodramatic in a non-musical adaptation flows beautifully when sung.
Director Hooper, in an unprecedented move, recorded the film’s songs live on set (rather than recorded in a studio and dubbed in later). This, perhaps more than anything else, lifts “Les Misérables” to its breathtaking heights. The actors and actresses aren’t just singing; they’re emoting, channeling joy and love and grief in what must’ve been a ferociously demanding experience. Highlights include Hathaway’s show-stopping rendition of “I Dreamed A Dream” (yes, it’s every bit as good as you’ve been told) and Jackman’s performance of “Bring Him Home.” It’s hard to capture, in any review like this, how much of a difference this makes. Suffice it to say that this isn’t like anything you’ve ever seen before – and all future musical films are staring up at a very high bar.
Anyone even tangentially familiar with “Les Misérables” is likely already aware of its themes: grace, redemption, self-sacrificial love, and the tension between justice and mercy. None of these elements are lost in translation: Hooper’s vision is suffused with the strongly Christian underpinnings of Hugo’s source material, culminating in an incredibly moving final scene. One can only hope that more Hollywood directors will follow suit.
Little else need be said here, except that “Les Misérables” demands to be seen – or perhaps more accurately, experienced. While certainly lengthy, I can’t imagine a more compelling incarnation of Hugo’s timeless classic. And of course, the music is superb.