Based on the book by Victor Hugo, Les Miserables became a household name after it was adapted for the stage as a musical in the 1980s. The novel was first published in 1862 and the English language adaptation of the stage production, with music by Claude-Michel Schönberg, first opened at the Barbican in London on 8 October 1985.
Tom Hooper (Oscar winning director of The King’s Speech) ambitiously took on the film adaptation of this well loved musical. In a break from traditional form the actors sang on set rather than recording the music beforehand. They sang with a piano for accompaniment (played through an earpiece), the full piece orchestra was added later.
The film opens with Jean Valjean, a peasant, who has spent 19 years as a prisoner paying for his menial crime, stealing bread for a sick relative. The hero fallen from grace is played by an emaciated and initially unrecongnisable Hugh Jackman whose character development throughout the film is quite brilliant. However the decision to sing live on set highlights the vocal challenge for Jackman. With such stirring songs it was disappointing to see that Jackman did not quite rise to the challenge, struggling with the higher notes.
After being granted refuge by a bishop Valjean seeks redemption, but having broken parole he is continually hunted by the ruthless Inspector Javert. Even as Valjean gains respectability Javert still hovers seeking cold hearted revenge. Russell Crowe as the overbearing Javert is unexpectedly proficient in holding his own vocally. His demeanor lends itself perfectly to the authoritative Inspector.
Along the way Valjean takes in a young girl, Cosette, the daughter of ill-fated Fantine. Anne Hathaway does Fantine’s I Dreamed a Dream justice in an extraordinary performance full of gritty emotion. Amanda Seyfried plays the youthful and innocent Cosette with charm and grace, helped by her beautifully pitched voice.
As Fantine is dragged lower into the gutter she meets the ladies of the night, led by the fabulous duo, the innkeeper and his wife, played by the suitably matched Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter. Their humour is unrivalled and adds much-needed comic relief from the emotionally charged plight of Valjean.
Set to the backdrop of the French Revolution Valjean becomes entangled with a group of young idealists, including Cosette’s love interest Marius, as they make their last stand at a street barricade in Paris. When all is lost Marius, played by Eddie Redmayne grieves for his fallen fellow men. Redmayne is outstanding and gives one of the best renditions I have heard of Empty Chairs at Empty Tables.
In a lovely touch Colm Wilkinson, the original Jean Valjean from the Broadway and London productions has a cameo appearance as the kindly bishop. Daniel Huttlestone needs mention as he gives an endearing performance as Gavroche, the reckless and brave young boy keen to support the uprising.
This is an ambitious film on a spectacular scale. Despite its challenges, Hooper has retold a well-loved musical with care and precision. The audience is left emotionally drained after witnessing Valjean’s journey to redemption. There were few dry eyes in the cinema.
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