N.B. It has been brought to my notice that, as I am a long-time fan of the musical, I may be unfairly predisposed to the film. In writing this ensuing review, I make efforts to remain objective and unbiased. That being said, this was clearly a film made to impress both fans and newcomers alike, and as I cannot become a newcomer again, however much I wish to relive that original and unique experience, I am forced to judge and critique as a fan.
Les Miserables is a stage phenomenon with such emotion and intensity that is near impossible to capture on film. I remember a teacher I once had saying, quite mysteriously, that theatre had a special intimacy, as opposed to film, as both the actors and the audience share the same air; that the screen we watch at a cinema could be just as much a barrier as it is liberating. Tom Hooper was clearly aware of how high the odds stacked against him when he decided to adapt the world’s longest running musical to film, and in my opinion, that care and attention to detail has created what I feel is quite easily one of the most emotionally gruelling, bloody intense, and completely flawless cinematic pieces I have ever seen.
Let’s start with its first achievement, one that cannot be denied by any critic or heretic. It remains completely true to its source material. No fan of the show could possibly leave its screening disappointed in any way, the most pleasing aspect possibly the acting. Anne Hathaway kickstarts the emotional turmoil of the film with such force that she had better be prepping her Oscar acceptance speech already. She manages to display such a deep and miserable vulnerability whilst expressing simultaneously a firm maternal resolve. Her portrayal is impossibly affecting. Samantha Barks as Eponine, it is almost unfathomable to imagine someone else in that role. In her singing, she stood out massively, and this is by far one of the strongest acting debuts I have seen. Eddie Redmayne as Marius almost gave dear Miss Hathaway a run for her money; his visceral rendition of Empty Chairs and Empty Tables being so gut-wrenching, it almost brought tears to my manly eyes. And Amanda Seyfried complemented him perfectly on screen, physically and vocally as well. She is beautiful and graceful throughout the entire film; fantastic, although in my opinion, marginally the worst singer on show (Yes, this proudly flies in the face of the general critical consensus that in this film, Russell Crowe could not sing to save his life). Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter are spot on in their roles, not only as the comic relief of the film, but also replacing the interlude, stopping the whole film from becoming too overbearing and tedious.
Les Miserables is not a film driven by plot, rather it is a film driven by characters, and Hugh Jackman as Jean Valjean had the ambitions of the whole film and the expectations of the whole world on his shoulders, and he carried them solidly. I have always been a fan of Jackman in his more dramatic roles (esp. The Fountain), but in Les Mis, he opens up, expressing a huge, profound, passionate and utterly convincing depth of emotion and resolve. This does set the bar very high for Javert, as he has to make their enmity equal. Although both characters are not equally desperate, they both have to be evenly passionate in their endeavours. Russell Crowe was not the best singer of the bunch, oh but he was good. His deep, bassy, resolute renditions of his songs may not have been fantastic, but they were far from mediocre, and whatever he lacked in singing ability he more than made up for in his portrayal of Javert. He dominated the screen whenever he came on, only rarely, ever so rarely in the shadow of Valjean himself, and quite rightly so. His character development by the end is by far the most significant, and he did not disappoint, plus, he was aided very well by Tom Hooper’s intense and careful cinematography.
Tom Hooper brings us in close to the characters, as close as he can, with the increased focal length we are in the actor’s faces. He succeeds in creating a legitimate intimacy with the characters, using every tool at his disposal. First the fact that the singing was done live… every actor has stated how liberating that process was and the spontaneity it allowed which permitted a instinctual and authentic portrayal. Then the faultless make-up: on one level it makes the film ever more raw and believable, but additionally, it gives him a lot more liberty to bring us even closer to their faces, to the emotion and the passion of the characters. This focus on intimacy clearly did not hinder him from shooting the film with an epic grandeur, subtle symbolism, and his signature off-centre framing. The film opens on such an immense scale, keying us in from the onset into what we are in for. Songs are backed up visually and symbolically, for example Jackman’s prayer-song Bring Him Home sang in front of an out of focus, divine, onlooking eye, and the recurring motif of Javert on the edge, at first depicting power and by the end depicting emotional turmoil and vulnerability. Tom Hooper thinks EVERY shot through, the long dramatic takes, the action sequences, and that results in near-perfect filmmaking.
It must be noted though that the transition to the third act falters a bit due to uneven pacing, a very minor smudge in an otherwise perfect film in my honest opinion. Seeing its on screen adaptation, it was just as affecting as the first time I saw it, just as honest, and just as true. From a long time fan’s perspective, and from an avid film-goer’s perspective, Les Miserables is an incredibly authentic and powerful film driven by brilliant portrayals from its ensemble cast and effortful direction from Tom Hooper.