You know that sometimes you leave the cinema struggling to articulate exactly what it is that you’ve just seen?
Those are my feelings regarding Les Miserables, the adaptation of Cameron Mackintosh’s blockbuster musical, directed by Tom Hooper (The King’s Speech). Often it’s the complexity of what you’ve experienced, but in this case it’s the sheer enormity – this version of the seminal work of theater about life in early 19th Century France, to my knowledge the first full musical adaptation to ever hit the big screen, is fairly breathtaking.
From the opening sequence in which we witness condemned man Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) helping to heave a wrecked vessel into dry dock as part of a team of convicts, the film immerses you in the character’s stories and the world of poverty and bloodshed in which they are embroiled. Having been lucky enough to have seen the stage play, I will try to prevent myself from referencing it too frequently. Suffice it to say, Les Miserables is a faithful conversion, albeit with a few minor concerns that I will address later.
Jean Valjean, who finds himself a free man after twenty years for a petty crime of necessity, finds himself hounded by a world with no room it for an ex convict, nor work. Shown charity by a man of the cloth, Valjean repays the Bishop’s kindness by making off with the silver. Arrested and brought before the wronged clergyman, the Bishop shows Valjean almost unfathomable mercy: he tells the arresting officers that the silverware was a gift, as Valjean has claimed. The desperate, dehumanized Valjean is unable to understand the meaning of such an act. As the Bishop of Digne (played by original stage Valjean Colm Wilkinson) informs him, he has bought his soul for God. Thus begins Valjean’s journey of redemption, which will encompass the next twenty years.
A big thing has been made of Hooper’s decision to have all of the film’s vocals performed live on set – every word that’s sung was sung the very take you see. Though arguably a gimmick, depending on your thoughts about lip- synching, this decision does a great deal to bring one into the film. When Fontine (Anne Hathaway), a single mother forced into a life of abjectness and prostitution, famously sings ‘I Dreamed A Dream’, it’s impossible not to buy completely into her denigration. “I had a dream my life would be so different from this hell I’m living”, she cries, shorn-headed, in perfect tune, in a scene that is genuinely moving.
In this regard, the whole cast acquit themselves admirably: Jackman carries the role of Valjean, the pursued convict, who has borne so much and suffered for so long. Russell Crowe, who plays Valjean’s pursuer, the dogged but principled Inspector Javert, has come under criticism for his singing abilities, but, apart perhaps from a lack of range, he does remarkably well in a role that would have destroyed lesser performers, particularly in his solo ‘Stars’.
Finding himself in the position of having inadvertently wronged the dying Fontine, Valjean adopts her daughter Cosette, who matures into Amanda Seyfriend. In doing so, he must pay a visit to Cosette’s caretakers, inn keeping couple the Thernadiers (Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter). Both actors previously appeared in Tim Burton’s adaptation of Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd and they bring a familiar macabre humor to the disreputable money-grubbing couple.
It is here that, in my opinion, one of the film’s key flaws becomes evident: on stage the juxtaposition of tragedy and comedy is somehow provided for by the formality of the space. Cinema is egalitarian while theatre, in form at least, is far more elitist. As such, the transition from – spoilers – the death of Fontine to the appearance of two cod-Shakespearean clowns is somewhat jarring. The couple’s appearances throughout the rest of the film become notably less so as they are integrated fully into Les Miserables’ grand narrative, but it certainly takes a moment to adjust.
As class tensions grow ever more fraught in the city of Paris, Valjean and his young ward find themselves caught up in the turmoil. In this, Cosette encounters the young would-be revolutionary Marius (Eddie Redmayne) – it is love at first sight. But for Marius there is the call of the barricade, and poor Eponine, played by the excellent Samantha Barks – who appeared in the role in the 25th Anniversary of the show at the O2 – the inn-keepers daughter, who loves him unrequitedly.
How the film copes with these individual struggles is one of its chief enjoyments: from Valjean’s struggle with overbearing shame to Javert’s plight over his stark view of criminality being called into question, it’s a testament to Alain Boubil, Claude-Michel Schonberg and Jean-Marc Natel – who adapted Victor Hugo’s 1861 novel for the original musical – and William Nicholson – who adapted their musical for the screen – that we never lose track of any of them and that they draw together so inexorably and fulfillingly throughout Les Miserables’ second act.
The film never loses it’s sense of scale: Hooper’s camera swoops through the streets of revolutionary Paris, soaring from the buttresses of Notre Dame to the impoverished citizens lurking in alcoves, longing for a brighter day. This brighter day takes the form of a ragtag bunch of students who man the barricade against impossible odds. Among their number is Enjolras (Aaron Tveit), who passionately leads the charge, and Grantaire (George Blagden), who would prefer to be whoring, drinking, and cracking wise – a minor show stealer.
Each is fleetingly sketched but well characterized, and ‘Empty Chairs at Empty Tables’ carries all the more weight for it. Unusually, the barricade skirmish takes place in seemingly far smaller confines than on the stage – a bottlenecked cul-de-sac dead-ended by a tavern. It is from the upstairs window of this tavern that Enjolras sprawls, flag unfurling, recalling the equivalent moment from the stage play. The film never lets you forget the human cost of the violence that takes place, and, indeed, to this extent is arguably more successful that it’s theatrical progenitor without the artificial dignity of the stage.
With scale, however, come problems of emphasis, which I’ve alluded to earlier. In bravely attempting a synthesis of stage and screen, Hooper chooses to show his actor’s singing in close-up: close-ups of Marius and Cosette as, through the bars of a gate, they sing ‘A Heart Full of Love’; close-ups of Valjean in ‘Bring Him Home’ as he pleads with God to spare his adopted daughter’s love.
Positioned as they are against grand and busy backdrops, from arching cathedrals to crowded battlefields, it often feels like you’ve been artificially forced into uncomfortably close confines with the performer in question. The songs themselves are soliloquized – which is to say, going heard or unheard by surrounding characters dependent on the needs of the plot. Though by no means perfect, Les Miserables is nevertheless brave and stirring, a noble experiment, and one that brings a much-needed sense of immediacy to the musical adaptation (my apologies to Oliver! and all it’s ilk).
Leaving the cinema, you feel like you know and have engaged with the characters like never before. This is theater as cinema and it feels more immediate and urgent than most live productions I’ve been witness to. I’ve tried to retain some objectivity during this write-up, but it’s near impossible not to get swept up in it. Les Miserables is a triumph, a piece of cinema I truly enjoyed despite it’s near three-hour run-time.
It’s not so much long as epic and, a few moments of tonal inconsistency aside, it feels like a complete work. When the main cast appears together, inter-cut from around the city, for the galvanizing ‘One Day More’ at the first act break, almost ninety minutes in, I felt glad that there was still so much to come.
I have in recent weeks fallen into the habit of giving mainly positive reviews, with a few notable exceptions. This is largely in part because I only go to see films I’m pretty much sure will be good, but I will take a short here in the closing paragraph as a hard-nose cynic. Les Miserables is not particularly subtle and nuanced, as the ‘Hollywood Reporter’ levels against it, and, yes, to be utterly critical, some of the editing occasionally seems a touch arbitrary – why that particular close-up there? – and there’s a bit of an over=reliance on Dutch angles. Some of the set-ups are even a bit – dare I say it – stagey.
Les Miserables is nevertheless a powerful, often moving cinematic experience. When the whole cast sings together in the final scene, along with all the deceased, upon a enormous barricade, flags waving, voices soaring, in a sequence transplanted – transcendental Christian overtones and all – directly from the play, it’s hard not to feel that Valjean and the film have earned the conceit. So, all together: “Do you hear the people sing, singing a song of angry men…”