Part of the sorry big-box-musical era that brought us “Cats,” “Miss Saigon” and “The Phantom of the Opera,” “Les Miserables” was a hit in London and New York as much for its muscular and imaginative stagecraft as for its anthem-laden score, which had the sung-through quality of an opera – a popera, if you will.
By having the actors in this film sing live on camera, rather than prerecord their voices in studios prior to reaching the set, Hooper gives the story a live, even visceral feel. It’s as though this is a melodrama whose characters are so passionate that they can no longer speak their feelings – they are forced to sing them.
The story – distilled from Victor Hugo’s five-section, 1,200-plus-page historical novel (full disclosure: Never read it, don’t intend to) – focuses on Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman), about to be released from prison after serving 19 years for stealing a loaf of bread. On his way out of prison, his jailer, Javert (Russell Crowe), warns Valjean that he will be dogging him, just waiting for him to violate his parole so he can send Valjean back to the clink.
Instead, Valjean disappears, popping up a dozen years later as the rich owner of a factory and mayor of a small town; these kind of story twists were so much easier in the days before mass media. But he’s still looking in his rearview mirror for Javert. So he’s understandably distracted when his factory foreman sexually harasses and then fires a poor single mother named Fantine (Anne Hathaway). Her life goes so far off the tracks that she’s become a dying, tubercular prostitute when her path next crosses Valjean’s – whose guilt at Fantine’s fate leads to his vow at her deathbed to find and take care of her daughter, Cosette.
Valjean stays one step ahead of Javert, even as Cosette grows from a tot into Amanda Seyfried, who later falls in love with a student revolutionary named Marius (Eddie Redmayne). Marius is involved with an uprising against the return of the French monarchy in 1832 (not to be confused with the French revolution of 1789, which most people assume this work is about). On the barricades, as the students hold off the government forces, Valjean finally confronts Javert for the final time.
The music, as noted, is a mix of the tuneful and the pretentious, particularly the more operatic part. The composers, Claude-Michel Schonburg and Alain Boublil, and lyricist Herbert Kretzmer, really have only about four distinct melodies, on which everything else seems to be a variation.
Hooper’s dynamic camera sometimes emphasizes the staginess of the material. At other times, it makes it feel immediate, when characters define themselves through song. And this is a cast that mostly seems up to the task.
That’s particularly true of Hugh Jackman as Valjean, his strong, sometimes keening tenor giving depth to the music and deeper meaning to the words. Having been shown kindness by a clergyman who he meant to rob, Valjean sings “What Have I Done,” a soliloquy about turning his life around that Jackman seems to sing through tears.
But the tears – and the chills – will come from the audience during Hathaway’s solo, “I Dreamed a Dream,” otherwise known as “the Susan Boyle song.” It’s the most heart-breaking movie-musical performance since Jennifer Hudson’s version of “And I’m Telling You I’m Not Going” in “Dreamgirls.” It’s a landmark moment, a watershed scene for a young actress who reveals further layers of an already fertile talent.
Russell Crowe’s Javert is an imposing heavy, though Crowe lacks the trained vocal quality that Jackman, Hathaway, Redmayne and Seyfried bring. But he has a certain gruff soulfulness nonetheless. Conversely, while Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter can both handle the comic tune, “Master of the House,” their comic riffs as the film’s secondary villains seem tentative and undeveloped.
“Les Miserables” builds to a moving climax in the battle between the revolutionaries and the army, and ends with an emotionally well-wrought finale of surprising power. The music is never as impressive as the filmmakers want you to think but the filmmaking itself is often very good – good enough to keep you watching and plugged in on a level that will leave you feeling wrung out.
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