When Victor Hugo first published his debut novel Les Miserables in 1862, there is no possible way he could have known the impact that his words would have on the world 150 years later. His story has proven to be timeless, as audiences have flocked to see the musical countless times since 1980, and are now making the musical film adaptation of “Les Miserables” from director Tom Hooper one of the most popular films of the year.
The plot of the film centers on the central character of Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) and the story of his life, beginning in 1815. He has spent 19 years in prison for stealing bread to feed his nephew. As he is released he is warned by the guard, Javert (Russell Crowe), to avoid any kind of trouble or he will surely spend the rest of his life in chains.
Valjean breaks his parole and begins a new life under a false identity, becoming a prominent citizen and a respected businessman. He meets a young woman named Fantine (Anne Hathaway) and he attempts to help her because she used to work in one of his factories. The sick Fantine has a young child named Cosette and Valjean promises to care for her. Unfortunately, Valjean is forced to admit his true identity, sending him on the run from Javert once again. Now Valjean must raise Cosette (Amanda Seyfried) while hiding from Javert, all during one of the pivotal moments of revolution in France’s history.
It is hard to even attempt to describe such an immense and complex plot in so few words without spoiling too much. The movie world has been trying to make a film version of this historic musical for decades. Finally everything fell into place and they were able to get filming underway. After Tom Hooper won an Academy Award for “The King’s Speech” (2010) he became an ideal candidate to finally get this film made, and he was more than happy to be on board. Hooper has done a wonderful job keeping the spirit of the musical and transferring it to film. The story is so large that it becomes hard to include every scene in the film without it dragging, but he was able to accomplish this difficult task without too much trouble.
Of course a lot of the credit for “Les Miserables” belongs to the absolutely incredible cast. It is easy to overlook all of the sensational performances in this film because Anne Hathaway, in a relatively small role, is so phenomenal that everyone else is sitting in her incredibly large shadow. This year’s Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress isn’t much of a competitive race because Anne Hathaway has done everything that she needed to do to ensure that she take the award home. In her four and a half minute singing of “I Dreamed a Dream” she engraved her own name on this year’s statue. Her acting ability has come so far and she is absolutely inspiring in a role that she seems born to play. It is obvious that her performance is so commanding and dominate because she is the most memorable part of the film, despite the fact she is only on the screen for a fraction of the film. There is no confusion why she has won almost every award possible for this portrayal.
Although overshadowed, there should be much credit for Hugh Jackman. When Jackman burst onto the movie scene in “X-Men” (2000) I never would have guessed that he would one day be able to pull off a role of this magnitude. Before this film, whenever I thought of the film versions of “Les Miserables” and the role of Valjean specifically, I pictured Fredric March (1935), Jean Gabin (1958) or even Liam Neeson (1998), but I can honestly say that Jackman and his performance have gone beyond what any of these other film legends accomplished. With Daniel Day-Lewis and his magnificent role of Abraham Lincoln this year, Hugh Jackman has a difficult task ahead of him in trying to win, but he is a much deserved nominee and could very well be the only person capable of making a run at taking the award away from Day-Lewis.
Russell Crowe was an interesting choice for Javert. One might not expect him to have the musical ability to hold his own in this film, but he actually does an extremely nice job. His acting is incredibly strong and his singing is competent, but where he seems to be lacking is in his own confidence. It is understandable that he should question his talents, considering everyone else in this cast, but he made an excellent Javert and I’m thrilled to see him expanding his repertoire out of his comfort zone.
Making a quick pass of the long list of supporting players in this film, Eddie Redmayne takes on the extremely difficult singing role of Marius with the perfect amount of confidence. When I saw him in “My Week with Marilyn” (2011), I didn’t really know what to expect in his future, but after “Les Miserables” I am sure that he will continue to excel on the screen for many years. His singing is inspiring and he holds some of the film’s most poignant moments. Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen add their musical abilities and comedic talents to the film, continuously reminding the audience to smile despite the seriousness that surrounds them. Daniel Huttlestone and Aaron Tveit add a bit of immensely passion supporting drama and both of them are worthy of praise for their ability to shine even though their screen time is limited. And then we come to Samantha Barks. Prior to walking into this film I had never heard the name Samantha Banks, but I promise, based on this film alone, I will never forget her. She absolutely blew me away with her particularly stirring rendition of “On My Own”, and it has made a perfect film debut for her.
So with all of these complimentary things to say, why isn’t this film the best movie of the year? Shouldn’t “Les Miserables” have been the film to beat? Instead it has become a minor story in this year’s Best Picture race. Musicals have a long tradition of excellence at the Academy Awards, but even though the story of Les Miserables is enormously epic, this film lacks an epic feeling. Where are the extensive sweeping shots that make the film seem bigger than life? So many people have already seen Les Miserables as a play, in a confined space. One of the greatest things about turning a stage musical into a film is that the filmmakers don’t work with the same constraints and limitations. “Les Miserables” almost feels like the filming of a musical on stage, with endless close-ups and long takes that seem as if the individual characters are sitting on a sound stage instead of running through the streets of Paris.
It is easy to get swept away by the glorious music in “Les Miserables”, and unfortunately the filmmakers can’t take credit for the music because they only wrote one new song, and it isn’t one of the highlights of the film. The actors can take credit for their own renditions of the songs, but it is hard to factor the brilliant song writing into the making of the film. It was the filmmaker’s job to take the already unparalleled music and improve it with their aesthetics and production abilities. On the stage the audience members only get one view of the action in front of them. A film can show everything, and this is where “Les Miserables” falls short.
In many ways, “Les Miserables” seems as if it was rushed through production. I don’t like to put the blame of a film solely on the director, but they do seem to get the majority of the credit when things go well, so it’s only fair. Tom Hooper did a GOOD job directing this film, but it might have been more than he was ready to handle. We needed Robert Wise, Vincente Minnelli, or even Bob Fosse. Less is more doesn’t apply to this story; more is more, and this film version lacks in the end because everything seems to try to keep things small.