Les Misérables is a surprisingly intimate musical epic
‘Les Misérables’ makes the transition from stage to screen with an epic scale and bravura performances by a great cast, including Hugh Jackman and Anne Hathaway.
I love musicals, both on stage and on screen. Les Misérables is my all-time favorite stage musical because of the amazing staging, the catchy melodies and the incomparable voices needed to sing that incredible score. The show is a three-hour-plus epic spanning several decades of love, loss, a never-ending hunt and a revolution. To see this story performed on stage is what the theatrical experience is all about, and you’re really drained emotionally after it’s all over.
So how does one translate such an epic piece of stage work to the big screen? I think director Tom Hooper has come up with the perfect solution by keeping the film epic in scale while still making the performances much more intimate than they can ever be on stage while you’re sitting in a balcony seat a mile away.
In telling the story of Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman), the man who stole a loaf of bread for his sister and her son and served nineteen years of hard labor for the deed, Hooper has a huge fan base to appease but he has to appeal to broader audiences who may have never seen the show. The opening scene is certainly huge in scope as teams of prisoners struggle to pull a capsized ship into what looks like some sort of dry dock, and more of these large scale set pieces appear throughout the movie. But Hooper manages to bring the audience into the story by keeping his actors in sometimes extreme close-up during their songs, which gives that feeling of intimacy, like you are right there with them.
Hooper also tried something different from the usual studio musical by having his cast sing live, giving more emotional oomph to the songs. It’s certainly a dangerous way to go but it helps sell the story and the performances, because it’s still odd to basically have people sing their dialog. Unlike the show, there are several lines of actual spoken dialog in the film that help punctuate a particular moment.
If you have seen the show, then you know the cast has to have powerful voices and Hooper’s cast, mostly, lives up to that legacy but with the luxury of being able to bring more emotion to a song without having to play to the back row. Jackman, a Broadway showman, makes the role of Valjean his own … and that’s not easy when he’s sharing a scene with original stage Valjean, Colm Wilkinson. He brings the anger, compassion, fear and love that the role requires and makes Valjean a truly heroic figure. Many people were scratching their heads when Russell Crowe was cast as Inspector Javert because he has a decidedly non-Broadway voice. He starts off a little scratchy and shaky at the start, but he really goes into good voice by the time of Javert’s final solo number, so my hat’s off to him for even braving the part. The rest of the cast is excellent as well, with Eddie Redmayne, Amanda Seyfried, newcomer Samantha Barks, Isabelle Allen, Aaron Tveit, and Daniel Huttlestone showing off their powerful singing skills. Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter are also great comedy relief, showing up to lighten the proceedings (and to give you time to wipe away some tears … and there will be many, many tears shed).
Besides Jackman, the standout performance is Anne Hathaway as the tragic Fantine, the worker thrown out of Valjean’s factory because of a bunch of jealous co-workers, who has to turn to a life of prostitution in order to keep her child Cosette (Allen and Seyfried as younger and older) safe with the Thenardiers (Cohen and Carter). She gets the show’s signature tune, I Dreamed a Dream, and makes it powerful, personal and painful during a single, masterful take with no edits. You can feel her pain during that song, and Hathaway just gives it her all. Dare I say this could be a potential Oscar-winning performance a la Jennifer Hudson’s showstopping Dreamgirls number?
Hooper has managed to take an amazing musical from stage to screen without compromising the source, opening up the film with some grand camera work (the transitional scenes between the years are pretty awesome), while keeping it small at the same time. I had fears that the movie could never live up to the stage show, but Hooper, his cast and crew have done a masterful job of bringing Les Misérables to the big screen. If I had one complaint, I would say that the orchestra seemed to have been kept more to the background, perhaps to enhance the singing, but I had hoped for a richer sounding musical score. Other than that, the movie is an outstanding representation of the show and I look forward to seeing it again … and again.
Les Misérables opens Christmas Day.