A screenshot from "Les Miserables" (Photo : Universal Pictures)
Over the years, the musical has battled hard to maintain its standing in cinema. The genre was huge in Classic Hollywood cinema, but lost its distinction in the latter part of the 20th century. In 2002, "Chicago" heralded the genre's return to the mainstream cinema but few musicals since have really garnered similar critical reception or even widespread love from audiences. Ten years later, Tom Hooper's "Les Misérables" has the potential to bring back the prominence of the genre.
Based on the hugely popular musical by Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boublil (which in turn is based of Victor Hugo's gargantuan novel), Hooper's film is massive in scope and grandeur. The presentation of the film is highly operatic as Hooper balances the visual requirements of cinema while also allowing the music to dominate throughout. For those unfamiliar with "Les Miz" (as it is often called), the musical is essentially through-sung. There are few extensive moments of spoken dialogue; instead the characters sing to one another continuously even when they are not in the context of a song. During the songs, Hooper rarely moves his camera and maintains the performer in a close-up. Occasionally, he'll create a great deal of movement or action in the context of the song (such as in the Thénadiers' "Master of the House") to propel the plot forward, but his choice to stay close on the soloists during their respective songs maintains an intimacy and realism that is often lost in the pomp of other films of this genre. Some might complain that the technique is overused and keeps the film from developing a visual dynamic, but Hooper's decision serves the actors (who all give tremendous performances in all respects) and also enables Schönberg's music to resonate.
Those worrying about visual dynamics needn't do so. After all, this is the same director that made a conversation piece like "The King's Speech" abundant in memorable imagery. Hooper succeeds tremendously in "Les Misérables" in the large crowd scenes for example. As the film starts we are shown the prisoners pulling on the ropes of a massive ship. The camera is handheld throughout which creates a raw, almost documentary like feel that adds to the effectiveness of the scene. In another scene the rabble sings and Hooper returns to this same quick-cutting, raw imagery that highlights the dreadful conditions of the poor. At other times, the visuals take on a more romantic feel with large crane shots swooping up and giving panoramic vistas of Paris. Hooper brings his back awkward angles from "The King's Speech" (shots that push the characters to extremes of the frame while leaving empty space throughout the rest of it) and they help to great a discomforting feeling that adds to the chaotic world of the story. These styles add a great deal of variety and flavor to the proceedings.
The script is a bit unwieldy as the story is extremely episodic in nature. The original Hugo novel is a 1,400 page long melodrama that is divided into five tomes. The musical obviously cuts a great deal of subplots, but there is still a wealthy amount of characters. Jean Valjean is the film's protagonist and his quest to get away from Inspector Javert essentially dominates the film. However, thrown in there are Fantine and her daughter Cossette; the Thénadier family and their daughter Eponine; and a young revolutionary Marius who falls for Cosette. Half of these characters do not show up until halfway through the film, but Hooper makes all of it flow seamlessly by maintaining the focus on Valjean and then developing the subplots as necessary. There are certainly a few musical numbers that could have been cut (Javert's first song "Stars" for example), but the emotional impact and execution of each and every single one makes it difficult to want to part with any.
All the actors are extremely powerful in the film. Hugh Jackman brings a grittiness to Jean Valjean in his initial scenes that make him feel dangerous, but he develops the character into one of nobility and eloquence as the film progresses. He does a solid job singing throughout (especially in the memorable "Bring Him Home" which contains high tessitura for the singer) but his voice does have an arid quality with a wobble that could be distracting at times. It does however suit the broken down nature and restlessness of Valjean.
Everyone has been clamoring over Anne Hathaway's performance as Fantine and for good reason. Her Oscar buzz is certainly no exaggeration as her performance is beautiful to behold. Her big musical moment is the famous song "I Dreamed A Dream" which Hooper chose to shoot in one long close-up with no movement. Throughout the song, it is impossible to hold back the tears as Hathaway's delicate, pure singing and performance portrays the character slowly unraveling emotionally before our eyes. Her tragedy is one of many throughout the film, but it is easily the most profound.
The other major standout in the cast is Samantha Barks as Eponine. Her rendition of "On my Own" is gut-wrenching and manages to steal the audiences sympathies away from Cosette for Marius's love. Eddie Redmayne delivers another heart breaking moment during his "Empty Chairs at Empty Tables" which is also shot similar to "I Dreamed a Dream." Redmayne disintegrates from a strong, controlled man to a devastated one. Amanda Seyfried brings delicate singing to the older Cossette, but her character is very underwritten in the second half of the film. Isabelle Allen, who plays young Cossette, steals your heart in her brief section with her poignant vulnerability during her song "Castle on the Cloud." As the odious Thenadiers, Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen bring the comic relief with goofy, but highy cynical performances.
Russell Crowe initially sounds overwhelmed vocally in early sections of the film, but brings a robust sound to his two big solos. He maintains a stolid expression throughout the film as the main villain, but one quiet scene near the end really redeems his character and reveals a strong sense of humanity behind the obsessive man.
Props must also be given to the makeup team that does a tremendous job of transforming Hugh Jackman's Jean Valjean from a sicky man to a healthy gentleman. The same goes for their transformation of Hathaway's Fantine from a lower class citizen to a disgraced prostitute with no hair.
Ultimately, the film purports the Christian ideal that despite all the suffering of the individual througout his life, he or she is due better later on. The film is lengthy, but Hooper manages to provide an emotional punch at every turn to keep the audience vested in the massive story. The film is filled with a long list of tragedies that bring significance to its title, but not one of them feels unimportant or overlooked. Hooper deftly maintains a strong sense of intimacy with every character and it is this sense of unity and attention to detail that makes "Les Misérables" a rousing and cathartic experience that is not easily forgotten.
Other Reviews By David Salazar
Zero Dark Thirty
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
Life of Pi
Killing Them Softly
Silver Linings Playbook