What do you get when you cross Catwoman, Wolverine, a Mean Girl and a Gladiator all in one epic motion picture?
Tom Hooper’s directorial interpretation of a story that has resonated through history since 1862, that’s what.
Stemming from Victor Hugo’s novel before hitting the stage in France in 1980 and finally making landfall in England in 1985, “Les Miserables,” or “Les Mis” as it’s affectionately known in popular culture, tells the story of Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman), a man imprisoned for stealing a loaf of bread for his starving family, who breaks parole to pursue a gentlemanly, moralistic life while being viciously hounded by hell-bent policeman Javert (Russell Crowe) for all of two decades.
This cat-and-mouse chase provides the central strand of the film, drawing in a plethora of other characters over the movie’s 158 minutes. “Les Miserables’” cast presents a collaboration of nations — from Australian Hugh Jackman’s to the British contingent of Eddie Redmayne and Sacha Baron Cohen — to chronicle the failure of the 1832 French uprising against the repressive leadership. It’s a deeply Victorian story with values and sentiments of that age at its core.
Helena Bonham Carter and Baron Cohen are an uplifting highlight, providing a much needed break from the overwhelming melancholy of the movie as the eccentric Thénardiers with their song ‘Master of the House.’
The only other glimpse of light is from the youngsters of the cast, Daniel Huttlestone and Isabelle Allen Gavroche and young Cosette — who add a sweeping glance of innocence, which in turn cements the grim side of street life as these blonde-haired children get metaphorically swallowed by the soot of the barricade-laden city.
Although her part is fleeting, Anne Hathaway, as Fantine, is the real show-stealer. Depicting her fall from grace, Hooper attacks the viewer with close-ups of her tears, shifting emotions and physique. Hathaway’s haunting rendition of “I Dreamed a Dream” showcases her captivating voice filled with despair and raw emotion.
Yet despite the gut-wrenching nature of the scene magnified by Hooper’s uncomfortable lingering camera shots, it remains unclear why Hathaway’s teeth are still somewhat reminiscent of a Hollywood smile when moments earlier she had some of them forcibly removed for pocket change.
The second half of the movie fails to match up with the first, with the action most notably floundering somewhat. However, the introduction of the love triangle between the exuberant wide-eyed Marius (Redmayne), the delicate Cosette (Seyfried) and Samantha Barks’ earthy depiction of Éponine provides a force of redemption, despite the somewhat farfetched plot-strand of Cosette and Marius falling madly in love at first sight.
The cast is generally astounding in terms of acting as you would expect from such a star studded collection; however, in terms of the singing aspect, some of them could show improvement. This is perhaps “Les Miserables’” biggest flaw — the reliance on actors attempting to sing rather than the employment of equal standard actors and singers. Usually this element wouldn’t be a major issue, except that to recreate the powerful, raw feel of the stage show, Hooper forgoes the traditional method of having actors mouth along on set to pre-recorded tracks mastered in a studio; instead the movie is one long live performance, with the actors singing along to piano accompaniment through an earpiece.
For some characters this adds to the veracity of their performances, but for others, namely Jackman, the chief protagonist, flawless singing is often neglected for intense acting. Crowe also fares badly from this process with his low-pitched warbling appearing frequently monotonous and dull. Perhaps this is not their fault though, as the score of “Les Miserables” is notoriously difficult because of its primary use of gut-busting ballads not for the faint hearted — a challenge to even the musically trained.
Hooper brings “Les Miserables” to the cinema screen with a dazzling amount of effort and grandeur. With a cast reading the like the who’s who of Hollywood and British cinema, unfortunately his stark downfall is his predilection for big names instead of lesser-known better singers.
Moreover, the set of this movie, especially during the musical piece, “Do You Hear the People Sing?,” looks like it would be a better fit for a small stage with the barricade of furniture coming across as pretty underwhelming on the big screen. Yet, even with its logistical letdowns, Hooper’s version of the Hugo classic is on-pitch with its honesty and raw energy. After his Oscar success with “The King’s Speech,” it’s clear that despite any rearing negatives, Hooper’s got another hit on his hands.
Jenny Rae can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.