Though it’s far from perfect, director Tom Hooper’s ambitious attempt to turn one of the most famous, oft-heard musicals of the 20th century into something fresh is an indisputably brilliant achievement. As a life-long theater nerd and a child of the ’80s, I’ve heard the popular songs from this musical performed as audition and solo pieces more times than I could possibly count. And even if you don’t share that dubious background, you’ve likely heard Susan Boyle’s Internet-famous rendition of “I Dreamed a Dream” enough times that all meaning and life has been wrung from it. But then along comes Anne Hathaway, and — this I promise you — she brings the entire house down. More on that later, but the most important thing to take-away is that, despite some flaws, Hooper’s adaptation is a resounding success.
The film, based on Victor Hugo’s classic novel, follows Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman), a 19th century French convict, as he attempts to both build a new life and escape the relentless pursuit of Inspector Javert (Russell Crowe). After failing to help the profoundly tragic Fantine (Hathaway), he adopts and raises her daughter, Cosette (Amanda Seyfried) as his own. When Cosette falls in love with Marius (Eddie Redmayne), a young student and protestor, Jean Valjean is reluctantly drawn into the 1832 June Rebellion in Paris. And though Hugo’s lengthy novel is epic in both scope and subject matter, it’s the intimate, self-reflective moments of the characters that has made it an enduring classic. Musical numbers can be off-putting to those not comfortable with the genre, and Les Misérables has so little spoken dialogue that it’s basically an operetta. But the very best musical numbers from the score by Alain Boublil, Claude-Michel Schönberg and Herbert Kretzmer (“Who Am I?” “I Dreamed a Dream” “Stars,” “On My Own,” “Bring Him Home,” “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables,” etc.) are all monologues: profoundly sad, soul-searching songs that these unlucky, unhappy miserables sing to themselves in attempt to process the chaotic world around them. And when these songs come along, Tom Hooper, a huge fan of almost distorted, wide-angle close ups, practically shoves his camera up the noses of his actors, letting the grief-stricken faces of Jackman, Hathaway, Redmayne, et al. fill the entire screen.
With all due respect to every stage actor who has tackled it, that sort of intimate, raw performance is something we’ve never quite seen from Les Misérables. The key to unlocking this project, it seems, was Hooper’s insistence that the actors sing their parts live on set. So what you see, from the strongest performers in the cast, is something wholly unique. Unlike stage actors, these singers don’t have to focus so hard on projecting loudly enough to hit the cheap seats that they lose some of the emotional nuance of the song. And unlike the slight disconnect you get with lip-synching a smooth, pre-recorded track that has plagued film musicals in the past, there is no gap here at all between what you see on screen and what you hear. Additionally, the actors were given a bit of interpretive freedom with their songs (the score was recorded later to match their choices), and, for example, the way both Jackman and Hathaway hit the word “shame” in their respective songs unlocked a connection between Valjean and Fantine that I hadn’t noticed before.
But how is the singing? For the most part, excellent. That unflinching intimacy that I mentioned earlier works best for Hathaway and Jackman, who are both accomplished singers and screen actors. (Though even Jackman struggles a bit with the notoriously challenging “Bring Him Home.” I’m baffled as to why they didn’t change the key for him.) It also works fairly well for the stage actors Hooper brought in to play the street urchin Eponine and leader of the student rebellion, Enjolras. Both Samantha Barks and Aaron Tveit are completely at ease with their talent. The most welcome singer, perhaps, for die-hard musical fans is Colm Wilkinson (the original Jean Valjean) in a cameo as the Bishop of Digne who helps Jean Valjean in his most desperate hour. But, unfortunately, Hooper’s grand experiment fails with Russell Crowe’s stiff and awkward performance as Javert. Crowe is, in theory, perfectly cast as the unrelenting, bullish policeman who obstinately sees the world in black and white. He’s made a career of playing pig-headed men. And though Crowe is not a terrible singer by any means (he’s often somewhat flat), he looks so painfully uncomfortable and insecure when singing that his entire performance as Javert is undermined. Which is a pity, because one of the story’s most poignant moments is when Javert’s conviction gives way to confusion and despair. I strongly suspect Hooper knew Crowe was weak and, thus, eschewed the close-ups during Crowe’s two big numbers in a favor of swirling and swooping shots of a CGI’d Paris. It distracts a little, but not enough. Finally, Redmayne and Seyfried are perfectly tremulous as the young lovers Cosette and Marius. In contrast to Crowe’s bleat, any weaknesses in their voices works perfectly for their characters. Redmayne is particularly strong during the heart-cracking “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables,” a song that became an anthem for AIDS victims in the ’90s and will resound just as strongly for anyone suffering a loss today.
The film itself is gorgeous, though I’m not sure anything was served by including large CGI set pieces like the massive ship in the opening sequence. As I mentioned earlier, the scope of Les Misérables is large enough on its own; there’s no need to make it seem any grander. Hooper preserved a bit of iconic imagery from the stage show (e.g., the look of the barricade during the Occupy Rue du Bout du Monde sequence and Enjolras clutching his red flag). He also makes good use of some hand-held camera work, lingering on the anonymous, dirt-smeared faces of prisoners, paupers and protesters. As is usually the case when a stage musical is adapted for the screen, the songwriters have added a new number (in the hopes of snagging a “Best Original Song” award). Unfortunately, the mawkishly sentimental “Suddenly” that Valjean sings to a young Cosette falls flat and sticks out both tonally and musically in such a tightly woven score full of recurring themes and motifs. On the whole, though, Hooper deftly avoids the saccharine tone that can drag down many a musical, and those among you who are made uncomfortable by dancing will be happy to know that, barring some surprisingly synchronized disease-ridden whores, there’s very little by way of choreography in this film. Mercifully, Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen as the clownish Thénardiers save the film from being an absolutely depressing slog. Perfectly wicked and grasping, their “Master of the House” is a complete delight.
However, don’t forget the title of the film. This is a harrowing story with tragic deaths at every turn. But there has been nothing as electric as Fantine’s swan song on-screen this year. Hathaway bravely (yes, bravely!) puts everything out on the table. Her lack of vanity and self-conciousness as she weep-warbles her way through “I Dreamed a Dream” will strike you down. It’s easy enough to accuse an actress of Oscar-baiting, but she undeniably delivers on everything the film trailer promised. If you let her, she’ll tear your soul apart.