Modern movie musicals for this reviewer are an oxymoron. Musicals on stage are immediate, spontaneous, and impressive in their imperfection; while modern musicals are a flaccid mess because of their dependence on ‘autotune’ (Rock of Ages, 9). That’s until Les Miserables arrived. Oscar Winning director of the King’s Speech, Tom Hooper has revolutionised the movie musical by harnessing the fire of live performances by collapsing the distance between the performer and the audience.
An adaptation of the stage musical based on Victor Hugo’s classic novel set in 19th-century France, in which a paroled prisoner named Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) seeks redemption whilst being pursued by the law hound Javert (Russell Crowe).
Hooper creates an environment for his actors where their on set vocal performances were the ones that would be featured in the film and thus recreating the real theatrical live trapeze without the safety nets of post-production. He uses beautifully composed close-ups to heighten the intimacy between the performers and the audience that infuses all of the musical performances with a cinematic realist quality.
The luscious and vivid production design brings the squalor and opulence of 19th Century France in all its epic proportions. Hooper brings the sweeping grandeur to Valjean’s travels in the French Alps and contrasts that wilderness. And prepare to be hurled through the gritty maze of Paris into the explosive and bloody uprising.
Jackman is absolutely phenomenal as Jean Valjean. There are some roles that you can feel the commitment and understanding in every moment you’re with them. Apart from obviously having the Tony Award winning musical pedigree to handle the vocal performance terrifically, it’s seeing the searing pangs of slavery etched into his weathered face and the luminescent redemptive urge burst forth from Valjean that makes for this utterly transcendent performance. Anne Hathaway’s support as Fantine is heart-breaking. Her rendition of “I dreamed a dream” is the emotional centre of the film and her limited screen time does nothing to detract from the spine tingling perfection of every aspect of her performance. Crowe’s as Javert was potently economical. In the briefest exchange with Valjean there’s a lightning strike between the two adversaries that retains charge throughout. Amanda Seyfried, Helena Bonham Carter, Sacha Baron Cohen, and Samantha Barks all deliver pitch perfect support. Eddie Redmayne remains the weak link in an otherwise strong ensemble.
Hooper’s Les Miserables is a game changer. Cinematic musicals won’t pass muster unless they’re aiming for this new gold standard.
and a half