Based on the musical of the same, which itself was based upon the Victor Hugo novel of the same name, Les Misérables has had a long trek from stage to screen, with film adaptations inhabiting the seven circles of Development Hell since the early 1980s.
Directed by Tom Hooper (The King’s Speech), Les Misérables tells the story of ex-convict Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) who changes his identity and becomes mayor of a small French town. When he encounters a dying Fantine (Anne Hathaway), he promises to find her daughter Cosette (Isabelle Allen/Amanda Seyfried) and raise her as his own, but he is exposed by police inspector Javert (Russell Crowe), who has vowed to being Valjean to justice. All this takes place over a span of almost twenty years and against a backdrop of political turmoil in France.
The film also stars Eddie Redmayne, Helena Bonham Carter, and Sacha Baron Cohen.
Those unfamiliar with Les Misérables and who are expecting a musical a lá Hairspray or Chicago – think again. Les Misérables is sung-through with only occasional lines of spoken dialogue, which will definitely alienate some viewers, but given patience, is an effective way of engaging with a narrative. Even the most famous songs are important to the progress of the narrative, rather than being fun breaks from reality.
From the opening scene, the high production values are evident with pain-staking and lavish detail being used to create a ‘miserable’ depiction of France in the 1800s.
The performances are the true highlight, even eclipsing the music.
Hugh Jackman delivers a career-high performance, justifying those award nominations, yet it is Anne Hathaway as Fantine who completely steals the show. Her screen-time totals about 15-20 minutes, during which she effectively conveys the tragic life of Fantine as she is dehumanised in her attempts to provide for her daughter Cosette. During her rendition of ‘I Dreamed A Dream’, the camera focuses on her face as she moves from defiance to devastation, and eventually, to tragic acceptance, capturing each painful grimace and tear. It makes for powerful and uncomfortable viewing, revealing the ridiculous use of the song as an inspirational ballad by the Susan Boyles and Gleeks of the world.
Unfortunately this scene is also the beginning of the film’s minor stumbles. Occurring within the first half-hour of the film, this scene is an emotional climax which the film comes close but ultimately fails to reach for the remainder of the film’s hefty running time, causing some scenes to drag.
Special praise goes to Russell Crowe, the last actor you would expect to star in a musical adaptation, as he gives an admirable performance as Javert. Following his performance in The Man With The Iron Fists and ahead of his roles in Man of Steel and Noah, Crowe seems to be stepping out of his comfort zone as he matures, with great results.
Adapting any well-loved work for the screen is no easy task for a film-maker, as they need to honour the legacy of a work while also keeping it easily accessible for those unfamiliar with the source material. With Les Misérables, Hooper has certainly succeeded in crafting a visually epic, sweeping narrative that is sure to please fans and newcomers alike.