starring: Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, Anne Hathaway, Eddie Redmayne, Samantha Barks, Amanda Seyfried, Sacha Baron Cohen, Helena Bonham Carter, Aaron Tveit
screenplay by: William Nicholson
directed by: Tom Hooper
MPAA: Rated PG-13 for suggestive and sexual material, violence and thematic elements
It is difficult to imagine a better film version of the beloved musical Les Misérables than this one. Directed with restraint and refinement by Tom Hooper (fresh from his Best Director Oscar for The King’s Speech), this is an emotionally resonant and powerfully acted experience that serves us operatic high drama grounded in social realism. Hooper’s direction truly makes all the difference, both in the performances he extracts from his impeccable cast as well as his naturalistic camera, zooming in tight on his actors’ faces as they explode with feeling while capturing the unfettered grime and grit of life in 19th century French slums.
We are treated to the film’s most bombastic sequence right at the top, opening on an underwater shot of a tattered French flag floating on the ocean’s surface, then soaring into the air to reveal a fleet of storm-tossed ships full of laboring prisoners. One such prisoner is Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman), who is serving his last day of a nearly twenty-year sentence for stealing a loaf of bread. He is watched hawkishly by Inspector Javert (Russell Crowe, bravely risking mockery with his allegedly “rock” bellow), who gets off on ensuring that prisoners are punished to the fullest extent of the law. Javert has a particular disdain for Valjean and believes the “full extent of the law” should last far beyond his imprisonment; as Valjean prepares to reenter the world, Javert utterly damns him by sentencing him to lifelong parole and branding him “dangerous” on his paperwork, profoundly limiting his employment opportunities.
Unable to find work and trampled at every turn, Valjean begins to believe there will be no second chance for him. Then, unexpectedly, he is happened upon by a priest who offers him food and shelter in his small country church. Valjean is distrustful of this kindness and, in desperation, absconds with the church silver in the middle of the night. But when he is arrested and dragged back to the church, not only does the priest tell the officers he gave Valjean the silver, but offers him the candlesticks as well. This act of radical grace shakes Valjean to his core, and he vows right then and there to start a new life for himself. We jump ahead several years and learn that Valjean has successfully reinvented himself as a pillar of society, with a new name and no ties to his former life. But Javert has never stopped looking for him, and when he pays Valjean an unexpected visit (but does not recognize him) in the factory he owns, Valjean becomes too distracted and fearful to realize that a terrible injustice is being done to one of his employees. Fantine (Anne Hathaway) is a seamstress who, having been abandoned by her husband, is working to provide money for her young daughter Cosette. While Valjean is preoccupied with Javert, Fantine is unfairly attacked by her hatchet-faced coworkers and fired by the lecherous shift manager. She is soon living on the streets, selling her hair, teeth, and ladyparts to support her daughter.
When Valjean learns what has happened, he vows to find Cosette and devote himself to giving her the kind of life of which her mother had, you know, dreamed a dream. He discovers that she’s been left in the grotesque care of two swindling tavern owners (Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter, lifted nearly wholesale from their roles in Sweeney Todd, briefly transforming the film into a broad Tim Burton comedy). Cosette has been languishing in squalor while their own daughter, Eponine, is lavished with affection. Valjean bribes them into releasing Cosette into his care, and raises her into an impossibly beautiful and radiant young woman (Amanda Seyfried). Meanwhile, Eponine (Samantha Barks) has inherited her parents’ poverty and pines hopelessly for Marius (Eddie Redmayne), a wealthy young man who cast off his privilege to help start the next French uprising alongside Enjolras (the heavenly Aaron Tveit). But it’s love at first sight when Marius and Cosette see one another, and Eponine feels she has no choice but to disguise herself as a man and join Marius in the revolution. Meanwhile, Javert is once again hot on the trail of Valjean, who continues his single-minded commitment to giving Cosette a happy life.
If big emotions are your favorite part of musical theater, you will be pleased by Tom Hooper’s approach to the musical sequences. Rather than sweeping camera work and flashy editing, Hooper films many of the songs (particularly the solos) in intimate close-ups with a minimum of edits. He has also taken the radical and very rewarding step of recording his actors singing live rather than lip-synching to studio recordings; purists and perfectionists may balk at the subsequent vocal imperfections, but those people should shut up. It is a remarkable thing to be right in the actors’ faces, watching in soul-revealing detail as they are wracked with…well, usually pain. The results are often breathtaking, particularly Jackman’s searing “Valjean’s Soliloquy” (his finest film work yet), Barks’ poignant “On My Own,” Redmayne’s devastating “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables,” and most notably, Hathaway’s Oscar moment, “I Dreamed A Dream,” filmed in a stationary closeup in a single unbroken take. As with Jennifer Hudson in Dreamgirls, Hathaway seems primed to win Best Supporting Actress for a decent dramatic performance that benefits from one absolutely heart-stopping musical number.
Sadly, Les Misérables isn’t uniformly effective; it never quite overcomes the Cosette Problem. As positioned by the plot, Cosette is ostensibly the most important character in the story. She is the core motivation for at least three of its principal characters, and much of the story hinges on her happiness. And yet Cosette is essentially a non-character that we cease caring about the moment we see her as an adult. This isn’t really Seyfried’s fault, who prettily trills and pouts her way through her second adequate big-screen musical performance. But still, she just isn’t sympathetic. We don’t root for Cosette — we root for our girl Eponine, who loses her unrequited crush to Cosette’s porcelain doll charms. This is why Fantine and Valjean sacrificed so much? So Cosette coud swan around in a bonnet and ruin Eponine’s life? And Barks is so effortlessly endearing that Cosette comes off even worse. Eponine’s big musical number may be “On My Own,” but I’m hoping there’s a deleted musical number called “Prissy Bitch (Ain’t Got Shit On Me).”
There’s something about the holiday season that seems to lend itself to lushly emotional musicals; maybe because this is the time of year where larger-than-life feelings and cornball sentiment are openly encouraged. But beyond that, Les Misérables is a perfect allegory for (apologies in advance for the rest of this paragraph) the true meaning of Christmas. It is the most poetic yet teachable illustration of grace to ever seep into mainstream pop culture; I can think of no better symbol for the story at the heart of Christmas than the priest giving Valjean his life back. Valjean’s life is renewed by receiving a gift he did not earn, and he chooses to allow his life to be transformed by that gift. He understands the value of what he has received, and is dedicated to giving to others as was given to him. In this sense, Les Misérables really is the perfect Christmas musical.
Les Misérables opens nationwide on Dec. 25.