A classic novel made award-winning musical, Les Misérables has it all: a powerful story, interesting historical context and fantastic music. The musical, written by Alain Boublil and composed by Claude-Michel Schönberg (with English-language lyrics by Herbert Kretzmer), has been on stage for over 25 years. The overdue big screen adaptation allows this masterpiece to be enjoyed by a wider audience than those who can afford to enjoy it from plush theater seats.
With the prestige it achieved as a musical, this year’s movie adaptation of Les Misérables had a lot riding on it. Bringing a musical to the big screen has the potential to expand and deepen the story, like 2002’s Chicago, or cheapen it, like 2008’s Mamma Mia!
Overall, director Tom Hooper handles the adaptation well. His decision to film the singing live instead of recording the songs beforehand makes the soundtrack fresh and allows the actors to play their parts in a more realistic way. The crew also did a fantastic job with the audio mixing, allowing individual voices to come through even during the group numbers.
Adapted from a 1,500 page novel, the plot of Les Misérables is anything but simple. In short, it is the story of the convict Jean Valjean, who breaks his parole and creates a new life for himself. He adopts Cosette, the orphaned daughter of Fantine, a desperate factory worker who dies after being driven to prostitution. Throughout the movie Jean Valjean is relentlessly pursued by the policeman Javert.
The story takes place in the period from 1815-1832, during the latter part of the French Revolution. Toward the end of the movie, the characters are swept up in an unsuccessful and bloody uprising in Paris.
Those drawn to the movie by the prospect of seeing Hugh Jackman and Russell Crowe sing may come away disappointed. Jackman, as Jean Valjean, and Crowe, as Javert, play their parts admirably, but both were obviously chosen for their big names and acting skills and not their singing, which was bearable but rather nasally.
However, the rest of the cast shines both in acting and singing. Even during her few minutes on screen, Anne Hathaway steals the show as Fantine. You can’t help but get goosebumps during her rendition of “I Dreamed a Dream,” which is raw, powerful and tear-jerking.
Child actors Daniel Huttlestone and Isabelle Allen steal hearts as street urchin Gavroche and young Cosette, respectfully. Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter bring a lighter side to the heavy story, playing a sleazy innkeeper and the innkeeper’s wife.
The entirety of the dialogue is sung, which allows for smooth transitions between scenes, but may come as a surprise to the average movie goer. The fast pace of the first half may confuse those who are unfamiliar with the story, while the last thirty minutes drags out the conclusion of the story.
Much of the film focused on close-ups of the actors, which made it feel intimate, but got a little old after almost three hours of seeing every wrinkle in Hugh Jackman’s face, and at times felt like an invasion of personal space.
Perhaps if he had zoomed out more often, Hooper could have done more with the setting to place the audience in 19th century Paris. With the attention to detail in costumes and makeup, the audience sees the grime of poverty, but we see only a few shots of the streets, and only a quick glimpse of Notre Dame in the background during Crowe’s main number.
However, in all, Hooper succeeds in doing justice to the musical while sticking in more details from the book. The cast gives a stirring performance which is well worth watching. You will cry with Fantine, your heart will be stirred by the revolutionaries, and you will leave singing.
4 out of 5 stars
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