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Les Misérables (2012)

December 29, 2012



written by: William Nicholson, Allain Boublil, Claude-Michel Schönberg and Hernbert Kretzmer

produced by: Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner, Deborah Hayward and Cameron Mackintosh

directed by: Tom Hooper

rating: PG-143 (for suggestive and sexual material, violence and thematic elements) 

runtime: 160 min.

U.S. release date: December 25, 2012


Having been in a few musicals in my time, I can’t really say I have an aversion to them as some moviegoers have, it’s just that there are many out there that aren’t that good. Although I’ve never seen a film version or live musical production of “Les Misérables”, I’ve known of the story, adapted by the classic 1862 novel by Victor Hugo and of the songs that highlight the musical that’s been around since the 80s. So, a new film adaptation of the musical from the Oscar-winning director of “The King’s Speech”, Tom Hooper, had my interest once the cast was announced and the trailers were released. While most musicals are better off on the stage, some film adaptations are able to add a new dimension to the story or bring the drama closer to the viewer, offering a more personal experience – not to mention it’s most likely a cheaper ticket price than any live stage production.

The grand opening takes place in 1815, where we witness an army of prisoners dry docking a massive ship in a storm, singing the rousing tune “Look Down” while police inspector Javert (Russell Crowe) oversees their hard labor. This is post revolution France, which finds the country not in the best of shape. The rich are getting richer and the poor are left to suffer. Among them is the strong-willed Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman), a man who was imprisoned for 19 years after stealing bread to help feed his sister’s child. Javert doesn’t make it easy for Valjean during his release, placing him on payroll for life, which permanently stains his record. He searches for ways to make a living, but after numerous rejections and altercations, the kind Bishop of Digne (Colm Wilkinson) takes him in.

Even after an act of panic and desperation could possibly lead Valjean into serious trouble, the Bishop continues to shower him with grace. This is the breaking point for Valjean – a man who has been forced to harden his heart, with a lack of faith in anything or anyone. Now, he is inspired to repent of his ways, break his parole and proclaim a self reinvention.

Eight years pass and Valjean is now an upstanding gentleman as a factory owner and mayor of Montreuil, although the fear of being caught still looms. Under his employ is Fantine (Anne Hathaway), a desperate woman who only desires to earn money to support her illegitimate young daughter, Cosette (Isabelle Allen). When she unfairly loses her job, she faces the harshness of street life where she is forced into prostitution. She is found by Valjean right before Javert is about to arrest her, who learns of her plight. Just as the Bishop offered mercy to him, Valjean promises Fantine that he will care for Cosette.




True to his word, Valjean pays off the abusive Thénardiers (Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter, the sole comic relief of the picture), the shifty innkeepers who had treated Cosette like a slave, while spoiling their own daughter, (Natalya Angel Wallace). Now in the custody of Valjean, Cosette has a chance at a decent life, albeit one that finds the two consistently on the run from the persistent Javert, who is determined to uphold the law at all costs.

Nine years pass and after numerous run-ins with Javert, Valjean and Cosette (now a young adult played by the wide-eyed Amanda Seyfried) have grown accustomed the cat-and-mouse game that has become their life. At times, Javert himself surprised himself by how conflicted he was about apprehending Valjean, possibly rethinking if a criminal can truly change his ways.

Soon, Valjean has to deal with something new – Cosette is being pursued by a young student named Marius (Eddie Redmayne, “My Week with Marilyn”), who, along with his friend, Enjolras (Aaron Tveit), is involved in a revolution against the Parisian government. His covert pursuit of Cosette blossoms into love, which breaks the heart of Éponine (now played by Samantha Barks), herself also involved in the youthful revolt which has recruited the poor and oppressed. Lives are lost and sacrifices are made as violence erupts between the rebel soldiers and the government army and in the midst of it all, Valjean and Javert are left to decide what actions or inactions they will make.

That hefty synopsis barely covers all that this “Les Misérables” has to offer. Other auxiliary characters come and go, populating this bleak and volatile atmosphere, fleshing out subplots that accentuate the plight of the main characters. But just as there have been countless interpretations on the stage, the big-screen and on television, my synopsis is what I took away from my viewing.  In fact, I have now seen it twice and have immersed myself in the movie’s songs. That’s mainly because there are barely any spoken lines of dialogue, everything is sung here (in that sense, it’s more like an opera than a musical) and, depending on who’s singing, it’s a challenge to follow along. That’s not a slight on the movie at all, it’s just that for a Lez Miz virgin like me, the experience takes some getting used to.

Within this enormous and grand production, primarily shot on location in France, Hooper and his cinematographer Danny Cohen (who also worked on “The King’s Speech”) partner to give audiences a fully-realized environment. The costume design and art production is quite award-worthy. The grittiness of the period is front and center, with its rich earthy palette and includes natural elements like wind and rain to heighten the drama that unfolds. While this can be achieved on a stage, it feels more organic on-screen, especially the set pieces and locales. I felt more involved, pulled in, than I would if was sitting in a theater watching the performances from a distance.




Much of that has to do with Hooper’s up-close camera choices as he lens the singing actors. When he used extreme close up shots on Colin Firth in “The King’s Speech”, it was a decision quite appropriate for the character and the story. Here, since the story is primarily told through the movie’s music and song, there’s a need for Hooper to be right on the actors as they perform in order to display the emotion or personality of the role as they sing. Surprisingly, the hand-held approach never feels bothersome, as it can in some films. That’s probably because it feels synchronized to the songs being sung, like in “Master of the House”, the infectious and jaunty tune warbled by Baron Cohen (who is quite good). If it wasn’t for Hooper’s decisions to follow Jackman, Hathaway and Crowe and the others as closely as each song calls for it, we wouldn’t be able to see the acting come through in these characters. This isn’t a musical that’s about show-stopping numbers like “Chicago” or “Dreamgirls”, it’s more of a historical tragedy that evokes tangible feelings and heart with each song.

It’s quite a feat, but Hooper brings all that out of these fine performers, from the touching “On My Own” by a powerful Barks (who’s played Éponine before on the London stage) to the rousing “One Day More” involving the entire cast. It certainly helps that Hooper had all the actors sing live on-set instead of lip-sync to their pre-recorded songs. Such an approach successfully captures the passion and pain in each song. Of course, that wouldn’t work without casting actors who can sing. Except for Crowe, who seems to be straining his singing capabilities (sorry, fans of 30 Odd Foot of Grunts), “Les Misérables” showcases a fine assembly of singing actors.

Among them, Jackman and Hathaway definitely stand out. Both have shown their singing chops in the past, but never in a big-screen musical. When they are together, they’re voices have impeccable chemistry. In their solo work, they are quite impacting and absorbing to watch, although Jackman gets a little excessive with the vibrato. It’s not just that their voices are great, it’s in how their compelling acting drives their work. Fantine may barely be in the picture, but Hathaway’s “I Dreamed a Dream” is unforgettable – not just because it is well sung, but because it is so powerfully acted. Whereas Crowe may provide subtle nuances to the seemingly one-dimensional Javert, his over-reaching singing voice doesn’t match his acting.

Without a doubt, this is an end-of-the-year award magnet of a film. I predict about 10 Oscar nominations, including Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Supporting Actress, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Cinematography, Best Art Direction, Best Costume Design, Best Original Song and so on.

Fans of the world-famous musical should embrace this film and those like me, who come to it with a clean slate, as well as an open mind and a strong curiosity, you will be rewarded. Yes, there is a lot of singing and crying, but it never once feels pretentious or annoying. “Les Misérables” may have some expected deviations here and there from previous adaptations, but it is nevertheless thoroughly satisfying entertainment, offering raw, intimate and soulful performances.




RATING: ***1/2



8 Comments leave one →
  1. Windi permalink
    December 29, 2012 9:39 am

    The only thing I’ll disagree with is on Russell Crowe. I really don’t think he brought to the table all that Javert’s character needed. I like Russell Crowe, I just didn’t much like him here. I think they could have done better.

    Interestingly, I read a review that totally slammed the camera work. The guy hated all the close ups and the way they used the camera. Absolutely hated it. hahaha…. Goes to show the difference in people’s opinions.

    Having seen the show on Broadway back in the 80’s, when it was huge, and having listened to the whole thing countless times (I break the cd out several times a year)..I had some pretty ‘set’ ideas of the characters, and the singing. I think it’s pretty impressive that my only beef was with Crowe. I think they did a fabulous job with the rest of the actors/singers.

    Loved being able to enjoy the show like I was front and center……I wasn’t exactly close to the stage in New York!!! hahaha

    • David J. Fowlie permalink*
      December 29, 2012 10:00 am

      I bet if this wasn’t a musical adaptation of Hugo’s novel, there’d be more of an examination of Javert. It makes me want to see how Geoffrey Rush did in the 1998 film adaptation and what Charles Laughton brought to the 1935 version.

  2. Lauri permalink
    December 29, 2012 9:58 pm

    Hmmm, I have to disagree with Windi. I thought Russell Crowe was perfectly cast, acting-wise, in the role of Javert. His stature and demeanor were impeccable, while his singing left something to be desired. Javert is a fairly one-dimensional character, but I thought Russell Crowe added a bit more personality to the role.

    I’d like to point out the role of Enjolras, the revolutionary mate of Marius, played by Aaron Tviet. What a find in him! His acting AND singing really stood out to me. I was also thrilled to see Colm Wilkinson (the original Jean Valjean on stage) in the role of the bishop.

    I have a soft spot for Hugh Jackman. I saw his one-man show on stage in SF. He did not disappoint at all in this role. It is a physically and emotionally demanding acting role, and to sing live on top of that… well, I was blown away. I say he’ll be giving Daniel Day Lewis a run for his money come Oscar time.

    I’ve seen Les Mis 3 times on stage, but that didn’t stop me from crying many times throughout the movie. I loved the close-up film work and just about everything else about the movie.

  3. windi permalink
    December 31, 2012 12:06 pm

    It was Colm Wilkinson who was playing Valjean in the Broadway show when I saw it, which was amazing….. 🙂 It was cool to see him again, and hear his magnificent voice! 🙂

  4. windi permalink
    December 31, 2012 12:09 pm

    I also had the pleasure of hearing him as the Phantom in the Canadian production of Phantom of the Opera! 🙂


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