It’s extremely rare for an elaborate stage musical to translate well to the screen– one only needs to take a look at 2004’s The Phantom of the Opera to be reminded of that. However, the screen adaptation of Les Miserables transcends all expectations and both recreates and improves upon the original source with fine performances, impressive cinematography and a novel sung-through approach from director Tom Hooper that utilizes the show’s dramatic emotional highs and lows to spectacular effect.
The story is a familiar one, one that has made its way to the movies almost since the dawn of the format, its various filmed permutations long predating the history of the musical itself. Taken from Victor Hugo’s massive novel, Les Miserables follows the path of Jean Valjean, a noble ex-convict who breaks parole and forges a new life and identity for himself based on the principles of kindness and humanitarianism displayed to him by an elderly bishop. Hugh Jackman as Valjean is nearly unrecognizable in the opening sequences on the chain gang and in his early quest for freedom– aside from the dirt and the scraggly beard, Jackman has never looked so scarily gaunt. This is also true of Anne Hathaway as Fantine, the factory-worker turned prostitute who sacrifices her all for the sake of her daughter Cosette. Hathaway in particular is a standout of the production; her portrayal of Fantine’s path to destruction sweeps the viewer into the terror and uncertainty of her situation. Her increasing heartbreak and desperation as she sells her jewelry, her hair, her teeth and finally her body to support her child is almost palpable, and her wrenching lament “I Dreamed a Dream”, delivered at the character’s lowest point, soars on a wave of such loss and sorrow that the song’s beauty, as well as that of the voice of the crushed soul singing it, becomes an afterthought, and this reviewer wept openly during the sequence.
The other revelation in this cast is Russell Crowe as Javert, the police inspector whose quest to bring Valjean to justice ultimately consumes him. I had previously seen negative reviews of Crowe’s performance, citing his lack of vocal prowess, but Fluffy is here to tell you– don’t believe everything you read. Crowe’s baritone is not merely serviceable, but a velvety delight to the ear, and his performance renders a role that occasionally veers off into simple douchebag territory into one whose motives are understandable, and whose inevitable end comes as yet another sorrow rather than a reason to cheer. I have seen the Broadway production– it is easy to play Javert as a cold, unyielding villain. Crowe’s Javert is richer than that, adding a layer of humanity to a character which might be a mere foil in the hands of a lesser actor. His rendition of “Stars”, which felt like a throwaway number stuffed in to give Javert more stage time in the play, becomes one of the most effective songs in the film. And did I mention that I loved his voice?
Jackman has the task of carrying the weight of the plot, and he is an able Valjean, though his voice is a bit deeper than the tenor that is usually cast– he appears to really reach for his highest notes. However, it’s not distracting from his performance, and a musical neophyte wouldn’t even notice. That he is able to work that vocal reaching into the semblance of emoting is testimony to his skill as both singer and actor. His journey from ragged thief to small-town mayor and factory owner to devoted father figure to Cosette has an honesty and intensity that befits both the original material and the more intimate medium of film, a deft balancing act that Jackman pulls off well.
Subplots abound in a work as monumental as this, and one which has been a fan favorite from the stage show’s inception is the love triangle of Cosette, Marius, and Eponine. As portrayed by Amanda Seyfried, Eddie Redmayne and Samantha Barks respectively, the triangle takes on an even more pathetic tone. Seyfried’s Cosette is more sympathetic than the character comes across onstage, and she and Redmayne have a sweet chemistry. Barks, however, is the powerhouse of the trio as doomed third wheel Eponine, whose longing for the oblivious Marius takes on a life of its own. A veteran of the London stage show, Barks is a newcomer to film and embodies Eponine perfectly. Her counterpoint in “A Heart Full of Love” is heartbreaking, and her showstopping “On My Own” becomes less an anthem for unrequited lovers than a dirge for the concept of love itself. While her character’s swan song “A Little Fall of Rain” and the circumstances leading up to it have been altered slightly, and some lines cut from the song itself, her (SPOILER) death scene is no less affecting– that she finally finds peace only by dying in Marius’s arms is apparent in her beatific performance. Once again, Fluffy was reduced to tears. Redmayne as Marius delivers one of the film’s most heartfelt numbers as well, the poignant “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables”, sung almost as an apology for surviving the events of the rebellion when so many of his friends did not.
Though there are changes from the original stage show, most of them work in the context of the film. The film itself is a marvel, a work of utter darkness that strives for and ultimately achieves the light. This is one of the few almost perfect films this reviewer has had the privilege of seeing– a beautiful spectacle which, in depicting both the worst and best of humanity’s struggle for dignity and meaning, becomes a triumph of the spirit itself. The SeriouslyFluffy Final Grade: A+