For crying out loud, he only stole a loaf of bread!
Hands up if you like film musicals. I'll bet there aren't many of you; if there were then Hollywood would be making a lot more of them. As popular as it was, the camp excesses of Baz Luhrmann's Moulin Rouge amplified the haters as much as it did the lovers, and there have been scant few quality entries in the genre since. Hands up if you liked Mama Mia!…nah, didn't think so either. Quite the surprise, then, that Tom Hooper's cinematic adaptation of stage sensation Les Misérables starring Hugh Jackman, Anne Hathaway and Russell Crowe proves not just enjoyable, but genuinely startling in it's scope, vision and quality.
If like me you are a cultural ignoramus who has no previous knowledge of the story of Les Mis, beyond the fact it has something to do with the French revolution, then a brief crash course would be this: Jean Valjean (Jackman) is a convict whose 5 year sentence for stealing bread to feed his starving nephew becomes 19 years after he attempts to escape. Breaking parole in order to try and start a new life, Valjean is pursued for several decades by the relentless policeman Jalvert (Crowe). Somehwere along this timeline he establishes a factory which employs, among others, Fantine (Hathaway) a single mother desperately trying to take care of her daughter Cosette. Fired following an altercation with her fellow workers, Fantine embarks on a brief life of prostitution as an only means of survival, and after disease claims her life Valjean, realising the fate his actions have bestowed upon the young mother, pledges to raise Cosette as his own. Years later Valjean and an older Cosette (Amanda Seyfried) become embroiled in the revolution when the young beauty falls in love with rebel Marius (Eddie Redmayne).
That's the abridged version, but staying faithful to the stage musical Hooper chooses to see the plot through in it's entirety and, bravely, maintains that all of the dialogue (bar a few brief words) be sung and recorded live on set. It is a bold, bold move that must have been a tough sell to the studio and a real challenge to the sound crew, and it could have all gone so horribly wrong, but remarkably the largely uniformly excellent cast sell things with enough conviction to essentially rewrite the firmware of the viewer's brain.
Jackman of course comes from a musical stage background to begin with, but regardless of experience a big screen musical of such dramatic conviction is an entirely different beast to wrangle, so it's a pleasure to report that the Boy From Oz knocks it out of the park. Valjean's introduction is a powerful opening scene, he and his band of fellow convicts hauling a galleon into dry dock by rope amidst crashing waves. Shortly after we are party to Valjean's epiphany in the first of several impassioned musical monologues, and an incredible scene it is. If Jackman's performance flags somewhat in the second act then it is easily carried by the conviction and raw emotion displayed here in a scene no more than five minutes long, and which is enough in itself to demand that this man have awards thrown at him these coming months.
If Jackman's performance is bold and electric then Hathaway, of whom I am no great particular fan, is nothing short of a lit stick of dynamite. The 30 minutes or so of screen time Fantine commands is some of the most heartbreaking I have encountered, and Hathaway's own monologue, the iconic I Dreamed a Dream, is quite possibly the single greatest musical moment so far committed to film. Hathaway clearly gives the role her heart, but for the five minute duration of that number she also offers you her soul, and a great many of the audience of which I was a part were reduced to tears. I was very nearly one of them.
By the time the revolutionary action comes around the story concerns itself mostly with the romance between Marius and Cosette, and both Seyfried and Redmayne give excellent performances whose depth, both dramatically and musically, I was genuinely impressed by. Helena Bonham Carter and Sascha Baron Cohen give some welcome comic relief from the weight of drama throughout the second and third acts as the Thérnardiers, and there is excellent support from Aaron Tveit and Samantha Barks as revolutionaries Enjolras and Éponine respectively. Several critics have pointed a finger at Russell Crowe's perfromance as a weak link, but to do so is to deny him the benefit of the doubt that, as the villain of the piece, Jalvert's comparatively dispassionate delivery of meter is a rail against the arguably over-dramatic approach of those of whom he is in pursuit. Maybe it's just me, but I enjoyed Crowe's performance and felt I'd come to know Jalvert as well as any of the protagonists. As always, your personal opinion may well vary.
There is certainly criticism to be levelled at Les Mis and to call it perfect would be ridiculous, but it's weaknesses do not lie in the casting. Inevitably, as is dictated by the source material, there is a good deal of repetition of certain musical motifs. Two and a half hours is a long time to ask an audience to invest in the melodic paradigm presented, and there are only so many time you can hear someone sing the line "I stole loaf of bread!" in protest of their persecution before it starts to irk somewhat. Likewise both Crowe and Jackman are lumbered with characters who never miss an opportunity to insert their names into a couplet, leading to moments outside the cinema where departing patrons could be heard singing, amongst other things "I'm off home to put the kettle on, because my name is Jean Valjean!". Such jibes were entirely good natured, but it's indicative of the strain that can be felt after such investment. Fortunately Les Mis pays off on that handsomely.
Critical reception, or at least that to which I have been party, has varied. For my money Les Misérables is a remarkable achievement on the part of Hooper and his cast, and I would certainly call this a stronger effort than his previous movie, The King's Speech. Where that was quite exclusively an intimate movie, here Hooper demonstrates real skill in moving between moments that are intimate, those that are epic, and those that are epic in the intimacy with which the cast share themselves through the screen. Draining it may be, but this is also a movie which can claim to be hugely rewarding, and only the most cold-hearted of patrons would leave the auditorium without feeling some kind of connection to any of the characters portrayed by the leads.
My one grave concern is how well we can expect Les Mis to live up to repeated viewings, and only time (or a lot of money spent on tickets) will tell if it can survive into the future of cinema as a classic. I for one believe it will. Remember when I said Hollywood didn't make many of these? Watch this space...
Russell Crowe (Jalvere)
Anne Hathaway (Fantine)