Set against the backdrop of 19th-century France, Les Misérables tells the enthralling tale of Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman, Australia), a man who survives nineteen years of imprisonment and becomes a town mayor. Pursued by a relentless police inspector after breaking his parole, Valjean involves himself in the lives of those that need his help. Tom Hooper’s (The King’s Speech) garishly epic screen adaptation of the timeless tale of redemption features a large ensemble cast and though his bombastic ambition doesn’t amount to a wholly successful work, there are some remarkable sequences. One can’t deny its sweeping spectacle and the fantastic work from most of the cast.
Les Misérables is adapted from the enormously successful Alain Boublil, Claude-Michel Schonberg and Herbert Kretzmer’s musical, the source of which is Victor Hugo’s 1862 novel. When Javert (Russell Crowe, Master and Commander), a man who strictly adheres to the law, becomes consumed by his obsession to re-prosecute Valjean, his pursuit culminates in their unexpected meeting on the frontlines of the Paris Uprising of 1832. Along the way Valjean takes upon the care of Cosette (Amanda Seyfried, Mama Mia), the illegitimate daughter of a factory worker, Fantine (Anne Hathaway, Rachel Getting Maried), forced into prostitution to care for the youngster. As a teenager Cosette falls in love with Marius (Eddie Redmayne, My Week With Marilyn), one of the student revolutionaries leading the revolts on the streets of Paris.
While there is every chance of the unacquainted musical novice falling under Hooper’s spell, this wearying tale is better catered for connoisseurs of the genre. The narrative is loaded and moves briskly (often too so), and though it is still a popular and relevant stage production, some sequences are clearly unsuccessful in the transition.
But, when Les Misérables peaks its reaches incredible heights. The rousing songs – sung and recorded live on set – are the result of a daring approach. They are frequently impressive; while at the same time exist as one of the film’s crutches. Whether sung by individual performers or the ensemble as a whole, they are always endowed with energy and sung with passion, and as a result, stir the emotions.
The world of Les Misérables, 19th Century Paris, is often stunningly realised. Visual effects are used intelligently to heighten the spectacle and the set decoration, costumes and make-up can’t be faulted. Rarely do we see such grimy slums so full of life. It is a shame, with the exception of a few impressive set pieces that Paris rarely becomes a character in itself. Hooper is preoccupied with the faces of his stars and doesn’t utilise the story’s setting as broadly as one would have hoped. There are some tremendous high-value shots and Hooper leaves his mark with more of the peculiar, odd angled framing utilised in The King’s Speech. The close-ups in particular are unconventional and Danny Cohen’s energetic sweeping around the cast has varying degrees of success.
Hugh Jackman has a theatre background and has been singing on stage for years, so stepping into a role like this is less out of his comfort zone than many would expect. Valjean’s story is endearing and it is a testament to what Jackman brings to the character. The buzz surrounding Anne Hathaway’s performance is justified too. She is pretty much perfect in a role that’s over within the film’s opening hour. Her rendition of ‘I Dreamed A Dream’ is one of the highlights – so good one could argue the film never tops it again. Also impressive is Eddie Redmayne, a man who clearly can sing. In a film where everything is sung, I couldn’t fault his work.
Russell Crowe fares badly, however. He not only looks very uncomfortable singing, but his performance isn’t convincing. Javert’s obsession is essential to the plot, and I struggled to accept the motivation behind his relentless pursuit. Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen are also poorly cast. Their characters are understandably present as some comic relief to this dark tale, but their presence is the weakest chapter of the story.
Les Miserables, an operatic and epic tale of social injustice, redemption, uprising and love, boasts toe-tapping numbers and cinematic grandeur. It is let down by a fatiguing length, some heavy-handed sentimentality and inconsistent technical decisions. It is an important cinematic event that warrants an endorsement for this holiday season.
[rating=3] and a half
Andrew Buckle – follow Andy on Twitter here: @buckle22
Les Miserables is released in Australian cinemas on the 26th of December