A film review by Craig J. Koban December 31, 2012

RANK:  #10


2012, PG-13, 158 mins.

Valjean: Hugh Jackman / Javert: Russell Crowe / Fantine: Anne Hathaway / Marius: Eddie Redmayne / Cosette: Amanda Seyfried / Eponine: Samantha Barks / Thenardier: Sacha Baron Cohen / Mme. Thenardier: Helena Bonham Carter

Directed by Tom Hooper / Written by William Nicholson, Alain Boublil, Claude-Michel Schoenberg and Herbert Kretzmer, based on Boublil/Schoenberg’s musical “Les Miserables,” from the novel by Victor Hugo

Victor Hugo’s 1862 French novel LES MISERABLES has been adapted in so many countless and various forms over the years that I get crossed-eyed just thinking about it.  There have been, of course, numerous cinematic iterations of what many consider one the greatest literary works of the 19th Century (the most recent and memorable was arguably the Bille August directed and Liam Neeson starring 1998 English language film), but it seems that the most cherished is indeed the stage musical version which saw the light of day in 1985.  This new LES MISERABLE film venture – directed by Academy Award winner Tom Hooper, who directed THE KING’S SPEECH and the underrated THE DAMNED UNITED – is appropriated from the Alain Boublil and Claude Michel Schoenberg musical.  What has emerged is a searing, epically mounted, poignantly rendered, and impeccably performed movie musical.   

After some botched opportunities like NINE, dreadful efforts like RENT, and decidedly so-so ones like MAMMA MIA!, LES MISERABLES is a grand return to the sprawling and sweeping type of operatic film musicals steeped in fiery romanticism that’s held together not only by its awe-inspiring production and period design, but also by the equally stunning vocal performances that linger with viewers for what seems like an eternity.  LES MISERABLES is an unqualified feast for the senses and just may be the most handsomely envisioned film – period or not – of 2012, but it also captures the intense intimacy, agony and despair of its characters, which allows the film to dramatically work on a pure emotional level.  Those whom are familiar with the stage musical will, no doubt, drink in everything this film version offers with a ravenous thirst; all others unfamiliar with the stage version will most likely find themselves easily taken in by the whole enrapturing spirit of the enterprise.   

The film – much like the book that it and its stage musical antecedent drew inspiration from – tells an expansive historical tale chronicling the time between 1815 in France and the 1832 June Revolution in Paris that involved a massive civic uprising against the ruthless military.  While doing that, LES MISERABLES tells a deeply moving story of Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman), a man – as the film opens – that has just served a 19-year prison sentence for a fairly minor crime of theft (he stole bread so he would not starve) and has now been paroled by Javert (Russell Crowe).  Despite the fact that Valjean has been given his freedom, he nevertheless breaks his parole, but then decides – via some divine intervention – to lead the life of a good and honorable man to better himself and those impoverished below him.  Javert, however, becomes obsessed with bringing him to justice. 



Eight years pass and Valjean – under a new identity – has become a fairly prosperous and rich factory owner and mayor of the small town of Montfermeil.  A girl that works there, Fantine (Anne Hathaway) has been discovered to be secretly sending money to her illegitimate daughter, Cosette (Isabelle Allen), whom lives with the fairly vile Thenardiers (played by Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter, a devilish pairing if there ever was one).  Fantine is routinely fired by her foreman and forces herself  as a result to turn to prostitution.  On one particularly dreadful night an incident occurs between her and an unruly client that nearly leads to her arrest by Javert (now a chief inspector), but Valjean chivalrously swoops in, saves Fantine, and takes her to the hospital, where she later dies. 

Valjean – based on his previous solemn oath to himself and God – decides to adopt Fantine’s daughter and raise her as his own, but he must do so while eluding Javert.  Ten more years pass and Valjean and the older Cossette (the wide–eyed Amanda Seyfried) now reside in Paris, where she falls for a revolutionary named Marius (Eddie Redmayne), who is also unconditionally loved by Eponine (Samantha Barks).  Matters grow even more dire for Valjean and Cossette as Javert seems to be getting closer and closer to capturing the ex-con, while a city-wide revolt looms that could spell doom for just about everyone’s happiness. 

Right from is truly spellbinding opening shot, LES MISERABLES is a visual triumph as far as film musicals go.  At a rather scant $61 million budget, the film looks like it cost three times as much, and on a scale of sheer and unbridled spectacle, Hooper’s film is an unparalleled achievement.  The set and costume designs are Oscar caliber, as is the gorgeously sumptuous cinematography of Danny Cohen, who bathes the vistas of his 19th Century locales with a foreboding exquisiteness and intrigue.  Not since, say, MOULIN ROUGE has there been a screen musical to simply lose yourself in its rich and awesome visual palette; as far as escapist entertainments go, LES MISERABLES effortlessly transports you to a different time and place as so few others have done before.   

Hooper does not let the incredible look and design of the film get the better of his performers.  He does something very compelling here: Instead of pre-recording the actors singing and then having them lip-synch to the tracks later on set (standard for most movie musicals), he opted to have his inspired and talented vocal cast sing their performances live on set with orchestral accompaniment coming in post production.  The effect here is kind of astonishing: the vocals here are not crisp, perfectly enunciated, and polished.  Rather, they feel more pleasingly raw and in the moment, allowing the actors to truly ground themselves in their respective characters and the emotional whirlwind that they find themselves in at times.  It allows scenes to resonate more passionately and deeply with viewers. 

And, oh my, what grand and inspiring vocal performances we have here, which range from giddily comic to genuinely heartbreaking.  Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter are given a lion’s share of the more eclectically humorous set pieces, whereas younger performers like Redmayne, Seyfried, and Barks give an eager and tender vocal tenor to the mix.  Hugh Jackman’s casting is a real coup de grace, mostly because I have never seen a side of him as an actor as what's on display here.   Not only does he bring a physical gravitas to the role of Valjean, but he also he gives a shockingly accomplished tenor-like boisterousness to his vocals that I honestly didn’t think he was capable of mustering.  Jackman has always been an unappreciated performer, but he more than makes a case of Oscar worthiness here.  Russell Crowe, on the other hand, may not be Jackman’s singing equal here, but I liked his rough and rugged machismo and rock opera magnetism he lends to his role of the fanatical Javert.  He gives it his all as well. 

The single most memorable and gifted performance, though, belongs to Anne Hathaway, and even though she occupies very little of the film’s already robust 158 minute running time, she is the undeniable heart and soul of the entire film.  Hathaway’s skills as an actress hardly need embellishment (see RACHEL GETTING MARRIED), but I was perhaps not prepared for the excruciating and overflowing heartbreak she’s brings to Fantine’s key moments in the film.  The most intoxicating sequence she occupies is the film's most deceptively simply in construction – Hooper shoots it all in tight close up with no cutaways for minutes – as she belts out a showstopper for the ages in her rendition of “I Dreamed a Dream.”  I’ve rarely seen a character so positively traumatized by grief and pain while singing on screen, and Hathaway sells every solitary moment of Fantine’s downtrodden existence in this remarkable tour de force moment.  It’s one of the best scenes of the year highlighting one of the best performances – singing or not – of the year as well.   

If the film were to have a weakness then it would perhaps be that it’s somewhat too long, but it certainly captures the broad scope of its settings and time period.  Yet, again, I was so utterly engrossed with the whole audaciousness of approach here and with the sheer and immeasurable pageantry of everything on screen that I found it hard to nitpick.   Hooper’s boldness here is noteworthy, not to mention gutsy (a near three-hour extravaganza where almost every single line of dialogue is sung and sung live as the actors execute their scenes…yikes!).  Some have criticized this film for being too bombastic, but that’s what truly separates it from all others in the pack: LES MISERABLES is the type of epically envisioned movie musical that we just don’t get in mass quantities anymore, and one full of humor, action, romance, and catastrophe.  It’s hard to make a quiet and unassuming film out of this kind of material. 

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