Hugh Jackman and Anne Hathaway in Les MisÃ©rables
Based on the epic 1862 French novel by Victor Hugo (one of the longest ever written), the musical Les MisÃ©rables debuted in 1980 and went on to become a phenomenon across the stages of the world.
Now, Tom Hooper’s marathon musical film version has made it onto the big screen to wide acclaim and a host of award nominations.
It’s the almost entirely bleak story of a man, Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman), who is freed after serving 19 years behind bars for stealing a loaf of bread.
When shown that he can redeem himself by a Good Samaritan, Jean breaks his parole conditions and creates a new identity, eventually becoming an upstanding factory owner and town mayor. But, he cannot escape from his past forever, and, years later, is identified by police inspector Javert, the man who originally arrested him.
While on the run from Javert, Jean takes on the responsibility of raising a young girl; the daughter of the dying Fantine (Anne Hathaway); a former worker who was once wrongly fired from his factory.
The film is a sombre rumination on redemption and social justice with the backdrop of the grinding poverty, filth and injustice that faced most people in France at the time. (In case it’s not clear to the audience, this is indicated by the almost constantly obscured sunlight.)
Les MisÃ©rables kicks off with grand and promising ambitions with its initially sweeping scale and dramatic score.
The plot involving Jean’s journey to redeem himself and Fantine’s slide into misery is gripping, but once the storyline veers to the now-grown daughter and her attraction to a young and dashing revolutionary, things begin to drag. And drag.
In part, it’s the fault of a storyline that loses focus but the interminably bleak visuals and the incessantly morbid one-tone singing dialogue do no favours for a film that stretches over two and half hours.
To make matter worse, while the first part of the film offers some beautiful and epic cinematography, a large segment of the second half takes place in a claustrophobic and obviously fake film set, meant to represent a Parisian cul-de-sac (literally and figuratively).
In most musical films, the actors lip-synch to songs recorded earlier in the studio. Hooper, however, chose to have his actors sing live while they were filmed. It’s an astonishing challenge and most of the determined cast rise to it admirably, especially considering that every single word of dialogue in the film is sung.
Jackman is a solid Jean, and can effectively emote while singing. He is entrancing in the first part of the film but his somewhat limited range and increasingly insipid character begin to grate as the film hauls itself along.
We’ve all heard the hype about Anne Hathaway’s remarkable performance as Fantine and it is justified. Despite Hooper’s insistence in conducting a gastrointestinal examination with the camera while she sings the famous I Dreamed a Dream, she knocks it out of the park. She’s all ‘snot en trane’ and gritty emotion.
Russell Crowe, who plays inspector Javert, is the weakest vocalist in the undertaking, but he’s determinedly earnest and committed in his role. His character, however, also has little else to do other than be earnest and committed.
If you’re hoping to learn something about the French Revolution, be warned that the film deals not with the globally significant event we’ve all studied at school but rather with a fairly minor unsuccessful uprising in the French capital many years later.
Before braving Les MisÃ©rables, be prepared for a draining and demanding experience. Nevertheless, amidst the tedium and solemness, you’ll be rewarded by sparks of visual splendour, moments of haunting musical marvel and glimpses of spectacular and memorable performances.