February Issue 2013

By | Here and Now | Published 11 years ago

Two years ago, Tom Hooper’s The King’s Speech beat David Fincher’s far more superior The Social Network at the Academy Awards and left many people irked. But now the British filmmaker has more than made up for that folly with his musical drama Les Misérables.

Based on Victor Hugo’s 1862 historical novel, which was turned into a musical in the mid-80s and has been running successfully ever since, Tom Hooper serves up an event-film like never seen before onscreen. It’s not entirely his own vision that carries the film and other directors might have left a more lasting signature on the material. Instead, it’s the songs and performances, in particular Russell Crowe’s entertainingly over-the-top turn as Javert, that render you incapable of shaking the images from your mind long after the 158 minutes are over.

The story is well-known: Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) is a Frenchman finally released from prison for stealing bread after 19 years. He made many attempts to escape from prison as a result of which he came to the attention of policeman Javert. Wayward and lost upon his release, Valjean takes shelter in a church, where he flirts with spirituality and after having another run-in with the law decides to bring his life back on track. He jumps his parole, as a result of which Javert is hot on his heels.

Many years pass and Valjean has become a respectable factory owner, where he’s employing single mother Fantine (Anne Hathaway).

Circumstances lead the latter to prostitution, so she can support her daughter Cosette. Fantine certainly had other plans in life and Anne Hathaway brilliantly conveys a gamut of emotions with the character’s solo, ‘I Dreamed a Dream.’ Hooper shoots it in one-take and primarily focuses on Hathaway’s melancholy face, a decision which should earn the actress an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress.

The story then shifts from Fantine to Cosette and the Thénardiers (Helena Bonham-Carter and Sasha Baron Cohen provide much-needed comic relief), who are Cosette’s uncaring foster family. They don’t treat her nicely, which is just as well because Valjean, having promised Fantine to look after her daughter, adopts her and takes her away from the brutish inn-keepers. The rest of the story, without spoiling it, is about France many years later, on the brink of revolution. Cosette, now a symbol of love and purity, forms a love triangle with the Thenardiers’ daughter Eponine and the young student rebel Marius (Eddie Redmayne).

In Les Misérables, all songs have been sung on the set and nothing has been dubbed in post-production, which lends the film a heightened authenticity. Even the dialogue is sung out, which could have worked against the film. The film briefly appears comical, but this feeling is only fleeting, as all actors perform their roles most earnestly including those who cannot sing at all, namely Russell Crowe. The man hasn’t been blessed with the best of vocal chords, but his heartfelt performance proves that in this musical, it’s not so much about your singing technique but more about your screen presence. We are meant to despise Javert, but for me Crowe manages to make him more human than any other character in this film.

Audiences have reacted quite enthusiastically to this version of Les Mis. There has been lots of crying, a lot of singing along and even rapturous applause at the end of many screenings. One doesn’t have to be a fan of musicals in order to enjoy this gem. Let it wash over you, so you too can gauge what the hysteria is about exactly. Is it the performances, the cinematography or the music? For me, it’s a little bit of everything. My advice: Just be sure to ‘hear the people sing, sing the song of angry men’.

Schayan Riaz is a film critic based in Germany