I must preface this review with my familiarity with the musical Les Miserables. I saw a mediocre production by Ashfield Musical Society some years ago and fell in love with the story and the music. My dad bought the soundtrack to the 25th anniversary, which I have since listened to countless times.
I do not know how someone who is unfamiliar with the musical would feel about this film. Character development and exposition is all delivered through song, so if you are the kind of person who waits for musical performances to end and get back to the story the chances that you will like this movie are pretty slim. I however, loved it.
Tom Hooper takes a unique and rather risky approach to what I would deem the most loved musical of all time. It is a story of grand stature. Set in revolutionary France, where dangerous ideas grab hold of a bold, malnourished and desperate people and galvanise them to tragedy. Hooper directs in a manner that is modern in its focus on truthful human experience of grand history to immense effect. He does not shy from the grit and grime of 19th century France, opening with a brutally epic scene of prisoners hauling a ship. He then hurtles through the songs at ripping pace with sparse backdrop thus emphasising the individual players in the narrative. The first third of the film particularly uses the ‘shaky-cam’ effect. As someone who is generally distracted by this technique, I found this film used it to its full effect in establishing chaos in a world of enforced rigidity.
Anne Hathaway’s Fantine, blew me away. I honestly did not know that such truthful human emotion was achievable whilst singing. Her voice is pure and sweet, only shattered by her tears, bringing to the fore her wretched experience and purity of spirit. ’I Dreamed a Dream,’ was my favourite musical piece but her feverish sweet words to her daughter gave us a glimpse of optimism and love in the worst of times and highlighted the true talent in this emotionally full performance by Anne Hathaway.
Colm Wilkinson, who played the original Jean Valjean in the stage musical, was another stroke of casting brilliance. In the film he plays the minor role of the Bishop in a performance of love and honesty. His performance in relationship to Hugh Jackman’s Jean Valjean is particularly poignant to those of us who love the musical in its theatrical form.
Jackman makes the role of perpetual self reflection that is Jean Valjean, his own. Whilst he does not possess the vocal range of some stage performers of the role, his interpretation is strong and he complements the other actor’s well. A worthy choice with his rendition of ‘What Have I Done,’ proving particularly memorable as the first of many big solos in the film.
Valjean’s nemesis, the policeman Javert, is played by Russell Crowe in what has been perhaps one of the most questioned casting choices. Crowe’s voice does not have the strength or the range of other members of the cast, however it is adequate for what is one of the less vocally demanding roles in the musical. His performance is particularly complementary to Jackman’s with a strong rapport highlighting their conflicting moralities. Though his final scene did prove slightly underwhelming.
The love-sick younger cast are all perfectly chosen with Samantha Barks as Epponine, Amanda Seyfried as Cosette and a particular standout in Eddie Redmayne as Marius. Contrast between the brave and sad Epponine with the purity and beauty of Cosette is well established. And Marius is presented as a earnest and kind hearted boy rather than the sometimes wimpier interpretations that appear in stage productions. Aaron Tveit also deserves an honourable mention as the revolutionary Enroljas. Indeed, camaraderie between the young men of revolutionary France is beautifully conveyed and highlight Redmayne’s grief at the outcome of their actions.
I am aware that I have focused this review on the performances, but this is because Cooper directed the film in such a way that they are what drives the film (along with the unreviewable music). The story is told as one of human experience with long scenes focusing on singular characters singing their stories. This method realised human truth on a background of historical grandeur and allowed for personal engagement in this narrative about circles of love and loss and death and hope. The final scene of Les Miserables culminates all of these themes and I left the cinema in tears.
A truly beautiful experience of the human condition.
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