The story of Les Misérables, originally written as a novel by Victor Hugo, is 150 years old. The first adaptation of Les Misérables as a musical came in 1980 and it has gone on to become one of the biggest and one of the best musicals on stage in the world. So how do you adapt the musical to film while keeping the operatic feel? How do you make a 150 year old story seem relevant to the 21st century audience? These are the questions that faced director Tom Hooper (The King’s Speech) when creating this giant production.
Les Misérables primary focus is Jean Valjean, a prisoner released on parole after spendingnineteen years in jail. Upon his release and his attempt to become a better man and live a better life he breaks his parole and ruthless policeman Javert dedicates his life to returning Valjean to prison. Along the way Valjean takes in the child of a dying prostitute. The plot spans seventeen years and is set against the backdrop of political turmoil and rebellion in France, culminating in the June Rebellion of France.
One of the key features of Les Misérables was the fact that the actors did not lip sync; their vocals were actually recorded while they sang on set, which is a very unique way of doing things when making a musical film. This means that the actors are forced to act, sing, move and sometimes fight all at the same time. It is a testament to how talented the whole case is that this never gets in the way of their vocals: this also helps to really keep a theatrical feel about the performance.
Hugh Jackman is Oscar nominated for his performance as prison Jean Valjean and his background in theatre clearly helped his performance in Les Misérables. Jackman’s transformation on screen as his character rises and falls in stature is fantastic and, with his performance, he brings so much emotion to the role it is hard not to feel for him. Hugh Jackman’s portrayal of Valjean is probably one of my favourite individual performances I have ever seen. This is also true of Anne Hathaway’s portrayal of prostitute Fantine, although for very different reasons. Fantine is forced to desperate measures in order to raise money to look after her child and the sequence which portrays this (accompanied with the song ‘Lovely Ladies‘) is so harrowing and you can really feel the despair and desperation of the character. I am slightly disappointed that Russell Crowe wasn’t nominated for an Oscar for his performance: even though he plays the villain I thought Crowe made Javert reluctantly likeable and I was really impressed by his singing too.
The songs and the music are the centre piece of Les Misérables and, as you would expect being as though it is a musical, the songs are wonderful. With such beautiful music and compelling lyrics the choice of songs (and addition of new song ‘Suddenly‘) really help to create a wonderful narrative which is vital here as there are very few spoken lines within the two and a half hour running time. Hathaway singing ‘I Dreamed a Dream‘ was a real highlight of the film, ‘Do You Hear the People Sing?‘ was a wonderful team production, ‘Empty Chairs at Empty Tables‘ was another personal highlight along with my favourite song of them all ‘Stars‘.
At the beginning of this review I called the making of Les Misérables a giant production and the huge scale on which this film is made is evident from the very first shot. Right from the get go it is a real team effort and everybody pulls their weight equally. The sets are incredible, the set pieces are fantastic, character development is wonderful. Lots of characters are introduced at different times throughout the film but they never clog up the storyline.
Les Misérables is a terrific story on so many levels and, even at two and a half hours long, I could have happily sat through it again as soon as it finished!
My Rating: 10/10.