Director: Tom Hooper
Release Date: December 25, 2012
Les Misérables is the latest adaptation of the musical of the same name, which in turn is based on the legendary book of the same name. It is, to put it bluntly, a pretty sad story (bring some tissues) that spans decades. Starting in 1815 and culminating in the 1832 June Rebellion the book/play/movie follows the life of ex-prisoner Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) as he attempts to escape his past by redeeming himself. He is hounded by a police officer named Javert (Russell Crowe), but finally finds his true chance at redemption after saving Fantine's (Anne Hathaway) daughter Cosette (eventually Amanda Seyfried) from certain death. The girl grows up with him and eventually falls in love with Marius (Eddie Redmayne).
This concludes possibly the most basic (and worst) plot description of Les Misérables ever written, but if you don't know the story by now you're either too young to see the movie or you need to get on top of being culturally aware of things. This is a classic and epic tale, adapted into a musical full of classic and epic music. It makes little sense to once again review the musical content of the show as it's almost exactly the same as on stage except for some songs that were removed for time. The songs are all powerful yet instantly endearing,and even if you've never seen the musical you'll probably recognize a few. They range from emotionally draining to downright funny and there isn't one that disappoints. If you have any knowledge of Les Misérables you know what you're in for and if not then hold on tight (bring some tissues).
Of course great content doesn't always mean it's delivered all that well, but director Tom Hooper delivers it almost perfectly. While nothing will be as powerful as seeing it live on stage, Hooper directs the film with a straight forward brashness that shows a brave faith in his actors and the material. He smashes the camera as close as he can to the actors during emotional songs so that you can almost deconstruct every pore on their face and then simply leaves it there, allowing the song and the actor to work the scene instead of the film. It puts you in a better-than-front-row seat for some truly powerful performances (bring some tissues). He keeps it simple, small and intimate whenever it needs to be, and most notably during Anne Hathaway's rendition of "I Dreamed a Dream" in which the camera hardly moves from her face the entire time. It can be truly powerful.
Conversely, when the music is less depressing intimate Hooper explodes his numbers on the screen in a bath of musical glory. Songs like "Master of the House" (sung by Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen) are a blast to watch and other numbers are simply epic in scope and size. Hooper knows how to work these scenes fantastically.
Aiding him is the fact that all the vocals were recorded on set, a change from the norm where actors will come into the studio later and sing their parts to be dubbed over their on stage performance. It's a change that sounds like it should only make a small difference, but if it generates the kind of performances you get in Les Misérables than it should be the norm for all musicals from here on out. The voices, tempo, tone and even faults all match up with performances that almost feels live. It lends an air of reality to the performances that is instantly noticeable and makes many of them impossible to forget.
These are definitely some of the best performances of the year and easily one of the best casts all around. While all talk is deservedly going to be about Hathway's performance of "I Dreamed a Dream" (brings some tissues) the real star of the show is Hugh Jackman. His opening solo of "What Have I Done?" -- brilliantly shot -- is alarmingly good, and Hooper's direction allows you to appreciate every nuanced tone to the performance. The character shrinks a bit to the background as the story goes on, but Jackman is still powerful in everything he does on screen. Crowe is probably going to get the most crap just because he's Russel Crowe, but his performance is strong enough to stand up with the rest of the film. The real breakout here is Samantha Barks (Éponine), who comes from the stage version. Her performance vocally is obviously fantastic, but she's a stellar presence on screen as well.
The film does have its issues. Redmayne is outclassed by most of the other actors around him. Hooper's commitment to allowing the actors to work the scene backfires a bit when it's Redmayne's turn, but unfortunately by the time his solo comes around Hooper is too committed to the style to back out just for him. The argument can also be made that the film feels too long. Since it's based on the stage play it definitely has a point where it feels like an intermission should happen, but without one this clear break point actually makes the movie feel longer than it should. While this would never actually happen an intermission like older films had could have really helped.
The fact also remains that Les Misérablesi is a long and complicated book and condensing it down into musical form means a lot of nuance gets lost. On stage (and with a bit more time) this can be glossed over, but the film often feels like its hurtling forward despite being long. There's a lot of complex relationships going on and sometimes they don't have the gravity they deserve. This is most noticeable between Javert and Jean Valjean. The former's relentless pursuit and inevitable reaction (bring some tissues) to discovering that the latter is not the man he thought he was doesn't quite grab the viewer as well as it could. It's by no means a bad execution of one of the classic rivalries of literature, but at points it seems forced.
What isn't forced is my complete recommendation of this movie. It is sumptuously directed, brilliantly acted and, for those who have never seen Les Misérables, is full of some of the greatest songs you'll see on screen for a long while. Make sure to see this film, and when you do make sure to bring some tissues.
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