Raw and riveting
Intense and heart-wrenching – almost to a fault – Tom Hooper’s in-your-face version of “Les Miserables” strips the beloved stage production (music by Claude-Michel Schonberg, libretto by Alain Boublil and Jean-Marc Natel, based on the novel by Victor Hugo) of most of its theatrical spectacle primarily by shooting scenes in relentless close-up. This highly unforgiving approach lays bare vocal imperfections but pays off in a big way by delivering a new, rigorous vitality that will stir the soul of even the most demanding of fans.
Opening nationwide on Christmas, Hugh Jackman stars as Jean Valjean, finally released from the prison at Toulon where, for 19 years, he paid a hard price—looking in early scenes like Dickens’ Fagin beaten to a pulp—for stealing a loaf of bread. Now he’s an angry ex-convict who will break parole and be pursued his entire life by determined prison guard Inspector Javert (Russell Crowe).
Hooper’s much-discussed method of recording the singers live and adding orchestration later is a risky, ambitious move, but one that pays off immeasurably by allowing the stellar cast to plunder the emotional depths of the score’s recitative, often in nuanced, whispered but nearly always convincing tones. This approach has its detractors, but calling “Les Miz” maudlin or overly pious is like criticizing “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” for being campy and crude. The “Les Miserables” story is one of personal redemption in a world of universal debauchery and the music is designed in nearly every note to emphasize such values.
Jackman and Crowe have more than enough gravitas for the continual cat and mouse plot, and while Jackman is the better singer and Crowe’s impact is more a triumph of persona over any technical acumen, the latter improves as the film arcs in intensity. It should be noted that in musical history, iconic performances are routinely staged by non-singers. (See Rex Harrison, Richard Burton, and more recently Gerard Butler in an underrated turn as the Phantom.)
But this “Les Miserables” has plenty of sumptuous vocal turns, including Anne Hathaway’s bravura portrayal of factory worker Fantine, battered and shorn, which includes a fearless, no-edit sequence delivery of “I Dreamed a Dream.” An extra bonus is a sweet new song “Suddenly.”
When the story moves to post-revolution Paris circa 1832 where a new uprising percolates, we’re introduced to Valjean’s (now Monsieur Madeleine) grown daughter Cosette (a warbly-voiced but radiant Amanda Seyfried). Her suitor, rebel student Marius (freckle-faced newcomer Eddie Redmayne) and street-smart ally Eponine (Broadway-experienced Samantha Barks) have signature moments, “Empty Chairs” and “On My Own” respectively, which are simply and not coincidentally, brilliantly executed.
Ensemble members such as Aaron Tveit (Enjolras) Daniel Huttlestone (Gavroche), Isabelle Allen (Young Cosette and movie poster child) are terrific, as are the comic relief posturings of crooked innkeepers Thenardier by Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter, who put their own occasionally gloriously grimy spin on the proceedings.
Vocal shortcomings and unabashedly bleary-eyed dramatics aside, Tom Hooper deserves a lot of credit. His adaptation is epic when the situation demands (sweeping vistas on the road to Digne, aerial shots of the crowded, muddied Parisian streets, majestic balcony views overlooking Notre Dame), but his real triumph is making the musical work as a personal, intimate supplication. “Les Miserables” is as raw and riveting as any fan could hope for.
Rated PG-13 for suggestive and sexual material, violence and thematic elements.