Tom Hooper’s adaptation of the world’s most famous stage musical is, rather aptly, an opulent production like no other. The King’s Speech helmer, fresh off his Academy Award win for Best Director, tackles a far more ambitious project this time around, a challenge he rises to with considerable aplomb, delivering a musical event film that is sure to thrill fans of the stage production and have most others at least leaving the film with a firm sense of admiration for the director.
With its immaculate set and costume design, grand CGI transitions between scenes, wide angles, off-kilter framing and long takes of handheld camerawork, Hooper’s film is an immovably confident project, telling the tale of a decades-long feud between two men – a reformed rogue named Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) and a doggedly determined police inspector, Jalvert (Russell Crowe) – absolutely on its own terms. There is no effort made here to pander to the outsider; this is a musical made entirely with the fans in mind, such that those who find this to be their first experience with the material – yours truly included – are likely to be overwhelmed and exhausted by the end of its 157-minute runtime.
That said, Tom Hooper clearly knows what he’s doing. The decision for the actors to sing live on-set rather than mime over a pre-recorded track is a revelation, giving the performances greater weight and a real physicality; when Jackman stands atop a hill, scarcely able to catch his breath, we are more engaged in the visceral aspects of the performance. Though this approach has been adopted before, never has it been employed as fastidiously as by Hooper; it’s remarkable how well the live singing is isolated during some of the bracing conditions under which the actors must perform, specifically Jackman’s opening sing-song while he is immersed in a torrent of water.
Hooper has opted to use very little dialogue throughout the film, meaning that there aren’t any cringe-inducingly spontaneous surges into song, instead allowing the singing to feel more woven into the fabric of the piece. The show-stopping highlight unquestionably comes when Anna Hathaway’s Fantine sings the iconic “I Dreamed A Dream” one-third into the film, an astonishing single-take sequence that will itself ensure Hathaway receives countless Best Supporting Actress awards and nominations throughout this year’s awards season.
Best-of-show though she is, Hugh Jackman isn’t far behind, a similarly excellent presence, boasting a naturally musical voice, and given his Tony Award win for The Boy From Oz in 2004, should we really be all that surprised? Of the three leads, Russell Crowe is unquestionably the weak link, his voice not naturally suiting singing in the way that Hathaway and Jackman’s do, though he can’t help but raise a few goosebumps nevertheless due to the sheer operatic bombast of much of the material.
As far as other notable players go, Isabelle Allen is delightfully angelic as the young Cosette, delivering a moving rendition of “Castle on a Cloud”, and as her older equivalent, Amanda Seyfried has a humming-bird like quality that smartly isn’t over-exposed throughout. Eddie Redmayne, meanwhile, as her love interest Marius Pontmercy, is the surprise of the piece, and though the love triangle between himself, Cosette and Eponine is where the narrative sags the most, Redmayne throws himself completely into those scenes with unwavering conviction, and his awards prospects are therefore considerably higher than many will have expected.
If all the morose yearning gets a little tiresome, then Hooper livens things up soon thereafter with some riveting scenes of the 1832 June Rebellion which, will relatively bloodless, are passionately sculpted and best demonstrate the film’s exuberant production design. Also taking away from the self-import of it all is some apt comic relief from Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter as Mr and Mrs. Thénardier, the amusingly shady inn-keepers who keep Cosette as a glorified slave mid-way through the story. Playfully vile and awash in surprisingly adult humour, their characters provide welcome respite from a production that occasionally veers into overt dreariness.
Les Misérables is so bombastic and portentous that every so often it verges on wearisome, particularly to those whose experience with the source material is limited. However, Hooper’s organic approach is not only ultra-professional but also undeniably seductive. As exhaustive and definitive as fans could ask for, this heavyweight musical will enrapture fans and prove impressive to the uninitiated, also.
Les Misérables is released in the US on Christmas Day and in UK cinemas on January 11th, 2013.
We are currently seeking Film contributors on WhatCulture. To find out more about the perks of being a Film contributor, click here.