Having seen the recent BBC adaptation of Victor Hugo’s novel starring Dominic West and David Oyelowo, it’s hard to go back to any other version, catchy tunes or no. The aching six-part miniseries only amplifies the deficits of Tom Hooper’s big screen production and shows the limitations of the musical format in telling Hugo’s sprawling story of poverty and revolution. That’s not to dismiss this handsome film, which boasts many positives, or Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg’s long-running musical, which was my introduction to musical theater, but rebottling emotions can be difficult, and this grand project leaves as much to be desired as to be admired.
I’ll start with a positive, topped by Anne Hathaway’s show-stopping rendition of “I Dreamed a Dream.” She deserves every award for her performance as Fantine, a character who doesn’t even make it halfway through the first act. It’s early nineteenth century France, and after the young woman loses her job in a factory, she turns to prostitution to pay for her daughter’s keep. Hair shorn and teeth pulled, Fantine bats away lechers and wonders how her life has come to this. The camera is fixed on Hathaway, unable to ignore Fantine’s hopeless fury.
Her misery is felt equally by Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman), a convict sentenced to years of hard labor for stealing a loaf of bread. He finds redemption first from a merciful bishop (Colm Wilkinson, who originated the role) and then in the town of Montreuil, where he becomes a respectable businessman and mayor. Nothing he does seems to atone for his past though, and he is undone by the tenacious prison guard, Javert (Russell Crowe), and his guilt over Fantine’s downfall. Jackman is at his best when Valjean is at his lowest. “Valjean’s Soliloquy,” sung shortly after his release, is laden with despair but also carries the faintest strains of hope.
That is something in short supply as every hard won happiness is met by more suffering. Valjean rescues Fantine’s daughter, Cosette (Isabelle Allen), from the abusive Thénardiers (Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen), but they are forced to hide from Javert, who’s determined to chase them throughout France. When the story shifts forward nine years, the focus turns towards the anti-monarchists charging through the streets of Paris. Among them is Marius (Eddie Redmayne), a young man infatuated with Cosette (Amanda Seyfried), loved by Éponine Thénardier (Samantha Barks), and loyal to the student rebels. Things finally come to a head at the barricades, where everyone loses one way or another.
I’ve always been drawn to the emotional texture of Les Misérables, and the film’s overall look primes the landscape beautifully. Several set pieces show off the story’s scope, such as the cavernous shipyard that opens the movie, the cramped and humble Parisian alleys, and, briefly, Marius’s decadent family home. The factory in Montreuil is also striking, sparse but saturated in blue. The entire production design, including makeup and costuming, are fitting of this spectacle.
Hooper’s direction never really rises above the ostentation though. Here is a story brimming with regret and love and forgiveness, where every character, perhaps with the exception of the Thénardiers, walks along some path of redemption. Hooper plows through it all. It’s as if the movie is at the service of brassy showtunes rather than the characters, who barely have time to catch their breath. Even with its substantial two and a half hour runtime, we’re watching one song crash into another and then another.
His decision to film the live singing instead of using prerecorded music is at least partly to blame. The technique has its advantages, and in the case of the slower songs, we get some nuance that we might not see and hear from a studio performance (again, see Anne Hathaway). But this also necessitates a lot of close-ups, and for a sung-through musical, that’s a lot of giant headshots. The camera is far too tight on the actors when they are singing. It translates into a visually overwhelming, claustrophobic experience, something my friend discovered when he got motion sick and nearly lost his dinner all over the lobby floor.
Some of the better performances are powerful enough to ignore that. Redmayne impresses with his intimate interpretation of a broken Marius in the second act, revisiting the scene of the uprising in “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables.” He doesn’t have the gravity of Michael Ball, who originated the role, but is heartbreaking because of his fragility. Daniel Huttlestone, taking on the part of street urchin Gavroche two years before he co-starred in Into the Woods, also proves he can handle a musical challenge. In the middle of the pack are Seyfried, Barks (reprising her role from the twenty-fifth anniversary concert), and Aaron Tveit as the rebellion’s leader, Enjolras. All give fine performances if not particularly memorable ones. As the comical and rascally innkeepers, Baron Cohen and Bonham Carter add levity, but their singing falls flat.
That leaves Jackman and Crowe, both capable actors but not the best fit for this film. Of the two, Jackman fares far better as Valjean and is quite moving in his despair. If this were a non-musical adaptation, his acting would shine. I keep circling back to his singing though and think his voice too reedy considering Valjean’s physical and emotional heft. For someone best known as Wolverine, Jackman sounds pretty feeble as he strains for the higher notes.
Still, casting the Tony-winner is understandable, unlike the choice of Crowe as Javert. He’s in his own league of awful here but not for a lack of trying. Crowe is so out of his depth that he completely loses his character. Rather than a police inspector with an obsessive agenda and an unbending sense of justice, Javert is a confused guy in a funny hat squeaking out threats. Surely a dramatic reading of the lyrics would have been better for all of us. If there is a bright side to Crowe’s participation, it is the reminder that Philip Quast gifted us with this profound performance of “Stars” in the tenth anniversary concert, and that is the version I’m off to watch now.
“Valjean’s Soliloquy” by Hugh Jackman:
“At the End of the Day” by Anne Hathaway and cast:
“I Dreamed a Dream” by Anne Hathaway:
“The Confrontation” by Russell Crowe and Hugh Jackman:
“Castle on a Cloud” by Isabelle Allen and Helena Bonham Carter:
“Master of the House” by Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter:
“Suddenly” by Hugh Jackman:
“Stars” by Russell Crowe:
“Paris/Look Down” by Daniel Huttlestone, Aaron Tveit, Eddie Redmayne, and cast:
“Red and Black” by Aaron Tveit, Eddie Redmayne, and cast:
“In My Life/A Heart Full of Love” by Amanda Seyfried, Hugh Jackman, Eddie Redmayne, and Samantha Barks:
“On My Own” by Samantha Barks:
“One Day More” by Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, Eddie Redmayne, Amanda Seyfried, Samantha Barks, Aaron Tveit, Sacha Baron Cohen, Helena Bonham Carter, and cast:
“Do You Hear the People Sing” by cast:
“A Little Fall of Rain” by Samantha Barks and Eddie Redmayne:
“Empty Chairs at Empty Tables” by Eddie Redmayne:
Prod: Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner, Debra Hayward, Cameron Mackintosh
Dir: Tom Hooper
Writer: Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, Anne Hathaway, Amanda Seyfried, Eddie Redmayne, Helena Bonham Carter, Sacha Baron Cohen, Samantha Barks, Aaron Tveit, Daniel Huttlestone, Colm Wilkinson
Time: 158 min
Country: United Kingdom