“Les Miserables” is one of history’s most popular musicals. Created by Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg in 1980, based off of Victor Hugo’s massive and insanely popular book of the same name, “Les Mis” is the longest running musical in London’s West End and the third longest running musical on Broadway, beaten only by “Cats” and “Phantom of the Opera.”
(Fun trivia: “Les Miserables” is also the source of the shortest recorded correspondence in history, too. When “Les Miserables” was published, Hugo was on vacation. Curious about the sales of the book on the first day, he sent his publisher a telegram – “?” His publisher telegraphed back – “!”)
The book has been written into a movie or TV mini-series eight times before, including the 1998 film starring Geoffrey Rush as Javert, Liam Neeson as Jean Valjean and Uma Thurman as Fantine… a movie that should have been really good but instead ended up being a pile of mess. However, this 2012 attempt is the first time anyone has ever attempted to bring the stage musical onto film, a massively daunting task.
And one that I think was quite successful, and perhaps one of the best attempts that could have ever been made.
“Les Miserables” is my favorite musical. Period. So, going into the movie, I was both excited and scared for what might happen. I prepared myself to possibly hate it and be super critical. And while director Tom Hooper (“The King’s Speech”) ended up making some choices I think were flawed, I ended up enjoying myself and being sucked into the musical as I am every time.
Now, fair warning: One big reason “Les Miserables” is so daunting a task to make a musical film out of is because it is THE musical. Every single word in the original production was written to a note. It is, by many definitions, an opera in that sense. It’s a two to three hour beast of constant singing. If you don’t enjoy musicals, you will almost definitely hate this movie. But if you like good singing, quality acting and a fabulous story, then step right up.
“Les Mis” follows the journey of a man, Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman), who has spent the last 19 years in chain gangs for stealing a loaf of bread for his sister and her child. After those 19 years, he is let out on parole… but no one wants to hire an ex-convict. He ends up attempting to steal the silver from a kind bishop. When he’s caught, the bishop lies and says Valjean’s story of being given the silver as a gift is true, then tells Valjean he must turn from his ways and use the silver to become a man of God. This prompts Valjean to tear up his parole papers and begin a life anew.
But his life anew has an old adversary to make things difficult. Javert (Russell Crowe), a policeman from Valjean’s time in prison, is constantly on the lookout for him. When circumstances cause Javert to be posted to the city where Valjean, masquerading as mayor and factory owner Monsieur Madeleine, Javert feels he recognizes Valjean, an impossibility because authorities have already caught him. Valjean finds himself in a moral quandary, fighting between letting an innocent man go to jail in his place or confessing his sins.
Meanwhile, a worker in his factory, Fantine (Anne Hathaway), has been fired by a cruel, horny foreman. Fantine, desperate to get the money needed to keep her daughter Cosette (Isabelle Allen) alive, ends up selling her hair, some of her teeth, and eventually her sex. She becomes very ill before Valjean finds her, learns of her plight and takes her to a hospital. When Valjean eventually decides to confess his true identity, he once again goes on the run, promising the dying Fantine to care for Cosette. Valjean buys her off of the sleazy, ridiculous innkeepers Madame and Monsieur Thenardier (Helena Bonham Carter and Sasha Baron Cohen) and they escape to make a new life.
That new life, many years later, bleeds into one of the many French Revolutions, this time instigated by several students led by Enjolras (Aaron Tevit). After an altercation in the streets which catches the attention of the student Marius (Eddie Redmayne), giving him a glimpse of the now grown Cosette (Amanda Seyfried), he becomes infatuated with her and asks his friend Eponine (Samantha Barks) to help him woo her.
It’s a thick, very busy story with many characters and many inter-crossing desires from each. A musical that could easily have lost track of these people, “Les Miserables” pulls off the difficult job of making each player memorable. The film achieves this both through the music and through some rather excellent camera work and direction, as well as some fantastic acting.
Hooper seems to have revisited the original novel quite heavily when crafting this film, focusing less on the grand, operatic style of the musical and digging deep into the characters and emotions that they carry with them. Filming the movie with live singing, allowing for more raw emotions to be tapped than a lip-synched recording would, helped Hooper to create an intimacy with the characters that can sometimes be lost when watching the musical in a seat far away from the stage.
Is the movie perfect? Definitely not. Seyfried’s constant vibrato was a bit annoying (though not nearly as noticeable/irksome as I was afraid it might be) and Crowe could have, perhaps, been a stronger singer. There were changes made to lines in the music, choices made in what songs and parts of songs were cut, that I found odd, and choices that I felt lost some of the intimacy that could have been had. My biggest disappointment was that Grantaire (George Blagden), easily my favorite supporting character, saw his solo cut from “Drink With Me,” losing some of his character growth… but Hooper did make several choices I would never have considered, choices that would never have been seen on stage, choices that brought powerful emotion to the screen.
“Les Mis” purists might not like it. People that dislike musicals will almost certainly dislike it. But this is the type of interpretation, creating both a feel of the epic vastness of the story and its setting and the intimacy and empathy it should create, that I feel Peter Jackson’s first “Hobbit” movie should have had. Despite having massive source material, the movie never feels like it’s dragging on or has too much. Really, I wanted more. The acting was amazing and the singing was excellent, though admittedly better from some than others. This film will almost definitely win at least one Oscar (Hathaway for Best Supporting Actress). And it well deserves it.
The movie brings a realism and raw emotion, as well as a vast beauty and intense imagery, to a story that could have easily become too bogged down or too much like a filming of the stage version.
If you enjoy musicals at all, I think you should definitely give this film a chance. There’s a possibility that you will feel its flaws are simply too numerous to overcome, but I think this has some of the best performances and movie moments of the year, and that’s worth it all by itself.