Reviewing Les Misérables is a bit of a strange task. Am I reviewing the novel, the musical adaptation, or the film adaptation of the musical adaptation? In the end it’s a bit of all three. I’ve read the novel, which is one of the most astonishing and morally vibrant pieces of literature I’ve ever encountered. But I’ve never seen the musical, and I’m glad my first experience with it was on film. The sweep of the story and of the music – which I enjoyed immensely – practically screams for the scope cinema provides.
The film opens with the parole of the preternaturally strong convict Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman), after serving nineteen years for stealing a loaf of bread to feed the starving children of his sister. Taken in by a kindly Bishop (Colm Wilkinson), Valjean promptly robs him of his silver and escapes, but is captured by the police and returned to the church. Instead of turning him in, the Bishop tells the police he gave Valjean the silver and has him released.
That act of absolution and forgiveness shakes Valjean to his core. He pledges himself to God and to the work of becoming a good man. The event also sets off a lifelong game of cat-and-mouse between Valjean and Inspector Javert (Russell Crowe), a man of brittle and obsessive legal principle.
Valjean remakes his life as the benevolent mayor of a small French town. But when Javert tracks him down, events accidentally render Valjean complicit in the firing of a factory girl named Fantine (Anne Hathaway). Condemned to a life on the streets, Fantine eventually dies of sickness, but not before Valjean discovers her plight and pledges to care for her daughter Cosette. Years later Cosette is a young woman (Amanda Seyfried), and she and Valjean are forced out of hiding when Cosette falls in love with the young revolutionary Marius (Eddie Redmayne). All three, along with Javert and Éponine (Samantha Barks), are swept up in the events of the 1832 Paris Uprising.
As a film, Les Misérables isn’t superb cinema. But it gets the job done. For such an epic story, director Tom Hooper goes with some really tight framing. I can see what he’s going for, keeping the characters in the foreground and pulling back for a sweeping canvas once the uprising kicks in. But even in the second half his visuals stay largely uninspired. And in the first half Hooper goes beyond the intimate to the downright claustrophobic, thrusting the camera so close to his actors’ faces the effect becomes absurdist.
What really carries the film is the strength of the performances, the music, and the structure of the original musical, which covers a huge amount of narrative ground in a brisk and coherent two hours and forty minutes. The musical numbers don’t just provide interludes of entertainment – they actually help drive the narrative and character development.
The beginning is a little jarring. There’s a lot of introductory plot packed into a small amount of time, and the fact that everything is sung takes some getting used to. (It’s more a modernist opera than a musical, really.) But when Fantine’s descent into prostitution arrives, Les Misérables comes to a still, reverent halt for Hathaway’s rendition of “I Dreamed A Dream.”
That behind-the-scenes mini-doc, on how Hooper and his crew created a system allowing the actors to record their songs on set, became so ubiquitous as to be a joke. But Hathaway’s performance here justifies the excitement. Freed to focus solely on her performance, she turns the song into a three minute look straight down into the blackest abyss of human despair. It’s a well-nigh unbearable scene, and from that point on the movie finds its footing.
Hugh Jackman and Russell Crowe are both excellent as always. Jackman’s expressive features are a good match to Valjean’s wounded, earnest decency and inner moral turmoil. Crowe’s singing style is both robust and endearingly scrappy, but unfortunately this adaptation of the story leaves Javert’s inner world and his final reckoning as something of an enigma. Redmayne is mainly there as a placeholder for hopeful and inspirational youth, but he has a moving moment mourning his friends with “Empty Chairs At Empty Tables.”
There’s also a raucous turn by Sasha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter as the scheming Thénardiers, an innkeeper couple who care (if that’s what you want to call it) for Cosette as a child. Their performance of “Master of the House” is the film’s comedic highlight. And Barks is so good as the raven-haird, sultry, tormented, fiercely alive Éponine – hopelessly in love with Marius – that her casting very nearly upstages the film’s romantic dynamic.
Finally, there’s Victor Hugo’s epic tale and its deeply resonant Christian themes. This is a film shot through with devotion to God, the moral centrality of the wretched of the Earth, and a firm belief in self-sacrificial love. The closing reprise of “Do You Hear The People Sing” crucially alters the earlier lyrics of the revolutionary anthem, transforming an inevitably tragic act of political violence into a hope for the recreation (the resurrection) of human community into something salvific and transcendent. It brings together the power of Hugo’s novel, the lyrical potential of music, and the grandeur of the big screen for a remarkable closing moment of moral synthesis.