REVIEW: Les Misérables

Famously trashed by critics when it first appeared on the stage in 1985, the film version of Les Misérables has arrived. However, loosely based on Victor Hugo’s immense novel set among the poor in 19th century France, the production has thrived ever since. It now stands as the longest- running musical in the West End and the show has been relished by over 60 million people around the world.

Les Misérables follows the tale of Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman), a proud and decent man imprisoned for nineteen years as a result of stealing a loaf of bread to prevent his sister’s family from starving. Once released, he is maliciously pursued by police officer Javert (Russell Crowe) for breaking the terms of his parole. However, Valjean assumes a new identity as he becomes mayor of Montreuil and a factory owner. This is where he meets Fantine (Anne Hathaway) whose daughter Cosette (Amanda Seyfried) will eventually fall in love with Marius (Eddie Redmayne) while Paris erupts in violence during the anti-monarchist uprising of 1832.

There are so many reasons not to even attempt the monumental task of converting this musical into a film but none were enough to deter Tom Hooper, the director who shot to glory following The King’s Speech in 2010. It is no secret that Hooper opted to shoot the actors singing live on set as opposed to lip-synching to a pre-recorded vocal.  It is a bold move to deliberately focus our attention on the singer, rather than the scene in general, by always filming them, their faces and their mouths in particular, in extremely close up shots.

This is remarkably effective when Anne Hathaway delivers Fantine’s ode to self-pity, ‘I Dreamed a Dream’. You may not be a fan of Hathaway, but as the desperate, martyred mother Fantine, deprived of hair, back teeth and dignity, her version of the song is delivered in one tremendous, tear-jerking take.

The cast have been the focus of great speculation- even more so than you would expect with ordinary blockbusters- on account of the demanding vocals required for each part. Fortunately, the decision to cast Hugh Jackman as Valjean turns out to be a wise one. Jackman’s stage work has been much admired, but with Les Mis, he has found a project that really puts that reputation to the test. His rendition of ‘Who am I’ was particularly effective, really drawing out Valjean’s desperation. Eddie Redmayne has pretty much only one expression, tremulously questing, but that’s appropriate for idealistic French student Marius, whom he makes touching, so you’re in there, wanting him to choose the forlorn Eponine (Samantha Barks) over the insipid Cosette.

The star, however, more in his initial appearance than in later scenes, is Sacha Baron Cohen as the dodgy innkeeper M. Thénardier, singing ‘Master of the House’ with unexpected gusto, in a surprisingly good French accent.

There are three things that make this film appealing. Firstly, love both sacred and cruel, and its ability to transform and transcend. Secondly, our need to fight for change and social justice in a brutal world that resists revolution or is quick to undermine and divert it. And thirdly, and above all, Les Misérables is about holding on to hope in the most desperate conditions, and it climaxes in the victory of love in a context of political defeat.


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