Director Tom Hooper follows up The King’s Speech with another piece of blatant Oscar bait – the old school epic Hollywood musical spectacle – with a marketing campaign that’s already succeeding Stateside in storming the Bastille of cinema goers wallets. This adaptation of the musical version of Victor Hugo’s novel, Les Misérables is a generation spanning tale centred on Jean Valjean (Jackman), a thief turned pious man, who is trying to turn his life around in 19th-century France, but is relentlessly hounded by the heartless policeman Javert (Crowe) after he breaks parole.
What makes this adaptation so different from many before as well as most movie musicals ever filmed is that Hooper bade his actors sing live during filming instead of miming to a pre-recorded vocal track thus freeing up the actors to give more naturalistic performances whilst giving the location sound department a mighty job on their hands. So did Hooper manage to pull of such a mighty ambitious step up of his game from the rather pedestrian, but effective The King’s Speech ? Yes and No. It’s certainly great to see the filmmaker challenging himself and Les Misérables, at nearly two hours and forty minutes, is a huge, epic undertaking. Its definitely sweeping, as would be expected given the scope of the story but Hooper’s deftest move is also making it wonderfully intimate.
As you’ve likely heard, Anne Hathaway is breathtakingly good in her small, but unforgettable role as Fantine and it’s in the scene of her signature song I Dreamed A Dream that is not only the films, but Tom Hooper and Anne Hathaway’s masterstroke moment of their careers so far. In the space of three deeply stirring and bracingly passionate minutes, Hooper gives Hathaway, like Carl Theodore Dreyer gave Maria Falconetti in The Passion of Joan of Arc, the scale and intimacy of a stark close-up which captures, in magnifying glass detail, every emotion etched on her face, as well as the gift of an unbroken take, which leaves her the dramatic space to run with her performance without cuts and, boy, does she – holding all onlookers spellbound with raw, trembling emotion and inciting much well deserved Oscar buzz. Hugh Jackman is also strong, and similarly emotionally committed to the role. And then there’s that moving and spectacular finish, which will leave audiences floored.
But it’s not all plain sailing, the problem is that Hooper’s movie is little of it feels integrated. A grab bag of thrilling set-pieces such as the opening scene where the camera drifts up from underwater to reveal Valjean and a chain gang of prisoners hauling an enormous ship into port under the crash of waves under the hang-dog glower of police inspector Javert, but, it’s Russell Crowe, who though cuts an imposing and fittingly scary Javert, lacks the commitment and verve of his quarry, seasoned musical theatre thesp’ Hugh Jackman. The cheese ball schlock by the lazily cast double act of Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter who perform the fan-favorite comic number Master Of The House is another sour point.
Les Misérables‘ scope and ambition are to be admired, and there are moments where it does make you feel intensely (and sometimes thrillingly so) during it’s epic running time but essentially it’s the cinematic equivelent of Bombay mix you’re picking out the nuts you don’t like and hoping the next bite doesn’t contain any craisins, which sadly it does. Lots of them.