Starring: Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, Anne Hathaway
You may like this if you liked: Dancer in the Dark (Lars Von Trier, 2000), Evita (Alan Parker, 1996), Les Misérables (Bille August, 1998)
Pretty much everyone has apparently seen the stage production of Les Misérables (though I am not one of them) so there is not too much need to dwell on the plot. Basically, in 19th century post revolution France a prisoner by the name of Jean Valjean (Jackman) is released from prison and breaks the grounds of his parole to start a new life assuming a new identity as a wealthy factory owner. As one of his factory workers Fantine (Hathaway) is dying, Jean who feels partly responsible for her demise vows to take care of her daughter, Cosette. Throughout this time Jean has been pursued by lifelong enemy and ruthless policeman Javert (Crowe). Jean and Cosette leave to start a new life together which takes the story to Paris with a grown up Cosette amongst the back drop of the June rebellion of which Jean unwittingly becomes involved in, along with Javert.
Musical films are a strange beast and sometimes work and sometimes fail miserably (no pun intended). The fact is that stage and screen are different mediums and for Les Misérables to work Tom Hooper was going to have to use the tools that a film can use that stage does not have at its disposal so it stands out and actually feels cinematic. In my personal opinion Les Misérables is a rousing success and cinematic achievement, and certainly indescribably better than the god awful completely spoken 1998 film. One of the major reasons this can stand out as a film is that the story and themes within it are very strong and what this produces on the screen is an epic and deeply involving story that is both grand and intimate.
For the more intimate and emotional scenes Hooper uses the tricks film has to offer by using extreme close ups and single takes to really convey the desperate emotion that these characters are feeling. For the more dramatic action sequences there is the feel of a rousing epic to compete against any classic epic film. Hooper’s attention to detail and obvious passion for this film is there to see throughout. His insistence that unusually the actors are physically singing on set is an inspired choice as when they hit those dramatic notes we feel and share their physical and mental pain. The performances are all excellent and really tug at the heart strings, especially Hathaway and Jackman. A lot has been said about Russell Crowe’s singing, in my view he was not that bad and certainly better than Pierce Brosnan in Mamma Mia. In my view none of them have amazing voices, but the fact is that they are first and foremost actors and here to act, it is probably the case that those performing Les Misérables on stage would struggle to give such a convincing performance on the screen.
My only real criticism of Les Misérables is that of structure and length. In the final third the structure of the film tends to struggle and feels a little disjointed. At 158 minutes, it is still shorter than the stage version, but I feel the film would have benefitted from having at least another 20 minutes shaved off. With no interval the film does start to feel emotionally exhausting and there are many points in the final third where the story feels like it is dragging and there are in my opinion many of the slower scenes here that add nothing to the story. However, the rousing finale is extremely satisfying and involving. Also Les Misérables is not all doom and gloom as Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter provide effective comic relief as scheming Inn owners. However their characters are also integral to certain plot developments so they do not feel like are just there as add-ons.
Les Misérables is a cinematic triumph that is both deeply involving and spectacularly epic. It does require effort so if you are looking for something easy to watch it would be best avoided for that, especially as the final third drags in places. If you are willing to invest your time and effort into it, then it is a very emotionally rewarding experience.