Les Misérables – Tom Hooper brings a classic musical to the big screen

Les Misérables is one of the most successful stage musicals of all time. Originally based on Victor Hugo’s novel of the same name it is a vast tale of struggle, despair and love set against a time of political turmoil in France. Director Tom Hooper (The King’s Speech) has now brought this lavish stage production to the world of film along with an all-star singing cast. But does this epic musical translate from the stage to the big screen?

Jean Valjean, aka prisoner 24601 (Hugh Jackman), is released from captivity after serving a 19-year sentence. But he is told by stern prison guard Javert (Russell Crowe) that he will spend the rest of his life on parole. Looked down upon by everyone for this convict status Valjean realises he will never truly be free, so he breaks his parole and vows to start life afresh under a new identity and become an honest man. 8 years later and Valjean is now a hardworking factory owner and mayor of a small town. However Javert is still on the lookout for escaped prisoner 24601 and vows to one day find him. Meanwhile at Valjean’s factory a desperate Fantine (Anne Hathaway) works long hours to provide money for her young daughter Cosette (Isabelle Allen) who lives at an inn run by the horrid Thénardiers (Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter). After an incident at work though, Fantine is thrown out of her job and onto the streets and Fantine finds herself in increasingly despairing situations in order to keep her daughter alive and well.

Adapting a stage production to the screen is always a struggle. Part of the joy of any musical is seeing it live and onstage, so the inevitable question that arises when making a film version of a musical is: is it worth it? Can a film adaptation ever be as powerful as the stage production it is based on? However director Tom Hooper has assuaged these usual criticisms, making an excellent and compelling transition to the screen with his version of Les Mis. His directorial style is dynamic and absorbing, drawing you into the film as the stage production would. His use of camera is fluid and kinetic, often favouring stark close-ups of the actors so the viewer can see their emotions up close and personal, putting the viewer into their frame of mind. It is his fresh use of direction that makes this film version of Les Misérables so engaging to watch, and that does indeed make it a valuable film adaptation of a musical that manages to reach the heights of the original stage production itself at times.

Another aspect that makes this film so unique and different to other film adaptations of stage musicals is how the songs were recorded. Hooper decided to have the actors singing live into microphones, recording the songs on set rather than have them lip-synching to songs they had pre-recorded. This stunning method makes a huge difference to the film. It means that while they sing we can hear every single emotion in their voices as they anger or tear up at their (often) dire situations. This sound recording technique also makes some moments in the film completely heart-breaking to watch.

The performances from everyone involved are also what makes this Les Misérables so special. Anne Hathaway very deservedly won Best Supporting Actress at the Oscars for her performance as Fantine. Her version of ‘I Dreamed a Dream’ is done in one single take and all in close-up. It is devastating to watch as we see her almost literally fall apart onscreen, reflecting how Fantine suddenly realises she can now never escape her inevitable plight. Hugh Jackman is the other actor who completely runs away with the film. As Jean Valjean he is mesmerisingly good – filled with passion and determination as he too struggles to escape a horrid life that has been unfairly thrust upon him. And an actor who is no stranger to starring in musical stage productions (he has previously starred in Oklahoma! and The Boy from Oz, among many others) it is also his song performances in the film that are some of the best. His voice is astoundingly powerful and full of emotion, bringing a truthful pain to each of Jean Valjean’s songs.

Other actors from the ensemble who leave an impression are Russell Crowe as the unfeeling Javert. While his performance as the character is excellent, many people have criticised Crowe’s singing voice saying it isn’t as good as the other actors onscreen. But really this doesn’t matter. In fact it grounds this stiff and unemotional character, making him more human and showing that he is flawed, even though he thinks he is not. Eddie Redmayne and Amanda Seyfried are also great in shorter roles as Marius and the older Cosette. Redmayne in particular gives a stunning and realistic performance for one highly emotional song later in the film. Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter also make a lasting impression as the Thénardiers and provide much-needed comic relief as these two OTT despicable characters. And another two worth mentioning are Isabelle Allen and Samantha Barks who both make first time screen appearances here. Allen is full of realistic wide-eyed innocence as the young Cosette and Barks’ performance as the older Éponine is also great – her version of ‘On My Own’ is superb and is again another emotional moment that will leave you close to tears.

One problem with the film though is the pacing. Everything in the first few acts seems to happen too quickly, speeding through important moments like the downfall of Fantine and the first meeting of the older Cosette and Marius. Then for the latter part of the film, after the famous moment of the barricade and the beginning of the uprising of the Revolution, everything seems to significantly slow down to nearly a complete stop. This is probably due to the fact that the stage version has the luxury of a longer running time, leaving Hooper the difficult task of which moments to cut to edit it down to a lean 2 and a half hours. And it seems like a lot of the first half has been sacrificed in favour of focusing on the rising of the Revolution. This breather in the latter part of the film isn’t welcomed though and is instead jarring alongside the quick pace of the first half of the film. It leaves for a frustrating watch until things start to get moving again just before the final curtain.

That being said though this is still a beautiful film and an entertaining version of the stage production. Director Tom Hooper has created something that completely warrants being made into a film due to his fluid, intimate style and his kinetic camera. The performances are all superb and devastating to watch at times and the songs are all brilliantly sung and powerful to listen to. The story is still as woeful as the stage production, which won’t be to everyone’s tastes. And for that matter for people who can’t stand musicals, this is a film that you should (obviously) avoid. But for everyone else Les Misérables is a magnificent musical film that will emotionally destroy you by the end.

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~ by square-eyed-geek on March 22, 2013.

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