Is Les Misérables the finest film ever made? No. But you could argue it’s one the best musicals.
Les Miserables was a book by Victor Hugo that was turned into a play that became a global phenomenon. This film isn’t like the 1998 film starring Liam Neeson, Uma Thurman, and Geoffrey Rush (which I’ve seen 3/4’s of and is the only reason I know the plot at all). This version of Les Mis is a musical based off of the popular play that tells the story of Jean Valjean, a man imprisoned for 19 years for stealing a loaf of bread and his struggle to become a better man and better his standings despite his past, all while being hunted by the ruthless policeman, Javert.
Tom Hooper (The King’s Speech) directed the film version of the beloved musical and has created something truly unique. The film is not only visually very dark and captivating, it’s almost ethereal at times. As a film, Les Mis is able to perfectly create clear images that support all of the themes that every song is trying to convey. The visuals in this film help tell the story of Jean Valjean’s journey and visualize the setting of the play beautifully. But this is expected in a film like this. What really makes this film stand out from its play counterpart is the music itself.
The music in Les Misérables is beautiful and moving. Filming the scenes with the actors singing the songs while actually acting, rather than just pre-recording and lip-singing on set, is a breakthrough way of visualizing musicals for film. The actors were able to express emotions and convey their characters in ways that sucked me into the film. When we hear someone sing, we are listening to their voices and seeing into their souls. Having the actors sing in this sort of improvisational method where the music matches the actor rather than the actor matching the music, is the perfect way to express emotions and create a connection with the audience. We get to see and feel with Jean Valjean and Fantine, and Cosette and Marius. I’m not a fan of many musicals, but I couldn’t fight this sense that I was watching something unique, something revolutionary. I felt for every one of the characters and understood and sympathized with their agony more from the looks in their eyes and the way they sang than in the lyrics.
The cast in this film was remarkable. Hugh Jackman and Anne Hathaway gave outstanding performances. Both of them deserve Academy Award Nominations, but Anne Hathaway is probably a shoe-in for Best Supporting Actress. Her performance as Fantine was heart-breaking. She sang with raw passion that encompassed her violated and broken soul.
I’ll admit, there were a few times I felt Jean Valjean’s soliloquies went too long and a bit too pitchy to be considered “good singing”, but Jackman really impressed me with his beginning piece, “What Have I Done”. I’ve always seen his range and admired how talented Hugh Jackman is–he’s one of the few true performers like the days of old–but I believe that this time he’s earned recognition from the Academy.
The entire cast was enjoyable. Even Amanda Seyfried’s singing was better than her acting. There was only one actor that hurt this film and unfortunately, it was a very important character: Javert. Russell Crowe can not sing. There, I said it. It was pretty unimpressive in the beginning, and I feel that I simply got used to his voice by the end of the film. I’m not sure why they cast Crowe in this film other than his connections with Jackman and to bring in more of an audience, but he was easily the weakest piece of the film. Even the actress playing Young Cosette and the little boy during the revolution were more talented and moving than Crowe. His voice just didn’t fit with the rest of the cast. Meanwhile, Samantha Barks who played Éponine was not only very beautiful, but an incredible singer. Her song, “On My Own” had my girlfriend in tears. Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen as the Thénardiers were entertaining and enjoyable, but sometimes the pacing of going from depressing moments to sudden slap-stick comedy felt strange and probably could have been changed up if Hooper had wanted to stray from the play in any way.
Les Misérables was by far one of the most satisfying experiences I’ve had in the movie theater all year. The music was moving and inspiring. The acting and singing was a refreshing movie-going experience much different than what I’m used to watching. If you don’t like musicals, you probably won’t like this film or the long running time (still shorter than seeing the play). It’s hard not to watch this film and not be impressed with the level of talent on and off the screen in bringing Les Mis to life.
If Les Misérables is your favorite musical of all time and you’re dying for Christmas Day to see it, then go and marvel at a film that stands out as one of 2012’s best and one of the best musicals I’ve ever seen.
I give Tom Hooper’s Les Misérables starring Hugh Jackman and Anne Hathaway, a 8.5 out of 10.