Director: Tom Hooper
Starring: Anne Hathaway, Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe
Length: 158 Minutes
Les Misérables is a big film. Based on one of the longest running musicals of all time, with a cast of big names and a huge fanbase, it is one of the most eagerly awaited films of recent years. The story itself is grand – Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) is an unjustly imprisoned man, who once free, breaks parole and becomes mayor of a town in France. Following a series of tragic events, Valjean agrees to take care of Cosette (Amanda Seyfried), the illegitimate daughter of Fantine (Anne Hathaway), and must avoid being recaptured by Inspector Javert (Russell Crowe), whilst being entangled in the June Rebellion of 1832. As the cast have stressed in each and every interview, all the singing was performed live on set. Yet I confess I have never seen the show, despite somehow knowing each song from it.
Being a musical, it makes sense to start with the music. Singing live is a risk; the freedom to deliver songs in a more natural, emotional form works well in the bigger songs, yet the dialogue-esque music doesn’t gain much from it. Hugh Jackman is clearly comfortable with singing live, and carries each of his songs well, delivering a consistently strong performance throughout the film. Eddie Redmayne’s Marius was also a surprise; he has a beautiful voice, and the change from a giddy, in-love romantic to a broken and beaten soldier is fantastic. My personal favourite, however, has to be Sacha Baron Cohen’s gleefully unscrupulous Thénardier. Together with great support from Helena Boham Carter, he brings a grotesque theatricality to the character, yet it doesn’t jar with the more nuanced performances of the others. Instead, the crude comedy, and great voice that Cohen delivers, provides much needed entertainment, and is by far the most enjoyable performance.
Yet the performance that has got people talking, and rightly so, is Anne Hathaway. I have, admittedly, never been a huge fan of Hathaway as an actress, but here she is brilliant. As Fantine, forced into poverty and prostitution, she has one of the most famous musical numbers of all time – I Dreamed a Dream. It’s a song that is usually known as a big song for a big voice. But Hathaway turns it into something raw and deeply personal. With a single shot, a close up on her face, it’s painfully intimate – the audience watch her travel through grief, anger and then a bleak and desperately sad, but inevitable realisation of her fate. Nothing else in the film can compete with the power of that one scene.
Crowe, on the other hand, is the odd one out. As a casting decision, it was by far the biggest gamble – yet on paper, it makes sense. Crowe has a phenomenal screen presence, and such brute strength could have worked perfectly in contrast to Jackman’s spiritual strength. But, although not as atrocious as other reviews have suggested, he is the weakest singer of the cast, and looks psychically awkward and uncomfortable in many of the numbers. The nerves could have worked, if he was a stronger singer; a powerful voice from an unsure man would have created a powerful but inherently weak Javert, making him more of a danger, a more volatile threat. Sadly, Crowe just comes across as a rather abashed and insecure policeman – it’s quite sweet, really.
Visually, it looks great. The costume and makeup are used perfectly; from the outlandish costumes of the Thénardiers to the roguishly dressed revolutionaries, each character looks great. The set pieces are also fantastic – the barricaded streets of Paris have a grand, imposing physicality that is a treat for the eyes.
My main faults with the film lie within the story itself. For starters, the film runs on for far too long. The story is already lengthy, and the addition of a new song (the forgettable Suddenly) brings nothing to the story or characterisation – it could never have been added and the film would be richer for it. Both the opening and end of the film drag, the ending in particular; after the excitement of the revolution, the film seems to grind to a slow stop. The entire romance story of Marius and Cosette is rather dull; though Seyfried is fine in the role, the character has so little personality that the romance just seems irrelevant.
There is no denying that Les Misérables is an impressive film. The sheer size of it – from the cast to the set pieces – is stunning. The method of singing live on set also raises a more interesting question – what next for the movie musical? Singing live on set has worked well with Les Misérables because of the emotional depth of many of the songs, yet whether more films will feel the need to continue with this method will be interesting to see.
The film itself I am still unsure on. The musical means so much to so many people, but I’m not one of them – Les Misérables is just not for me. It’s a good film, yet for me personally, I know it’s one that I won’t return to.