Directed by Tom Hooper. Screenplay by William Nicholson, James Fenton; based upon the French and English stage productions with music by Claude Michel Schönberg; lyrics by Alan Boulbil, Jean-Marc Natel, Herbert Kretzmer; book by Claude Michel Schönberg, Alan Boulbil, Trevor Nunn, John Card; also based upon the novel by Victor Hugo. Produced by Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner, Debra Hayward, Cameron Mackintosh. Photographed by Danny Cohen. Edited by Chris Dickens, Melanie Oliver. Production designed by Eve Stewart. Starring Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, Anne Hathaway, Amanda Seyfried, Sacha Baron Cohen, Helena Bonham Carter, Eddie Redmayne, Aaron Tveit, Samantha Barks, Daniel Huttlestone.
Les Misérables is a respectable, handsome, and frequently rousing version of the perennial stage musical, which recycled a piece of literature so inherently operatic that turning it into an actual opera seemed redundant, but there you have it. The film, long in development, now arrives on screen with style, confidence…and a desire to cram all of the musical’s signature moments into a 165-minute runtime. The resulting film is less a retelling of a classic story and more a breathless restaging of a Broadway hit, but on those terms, it’s a solid one.
The plot, from Victor Hugo’s novel, is knowingly overwrought melodrama by way of the Second French Revolution, where the oppressed working classes wallow in filth and shame. In a neat opening sequence, the wrecked hull of a frigate is hauled ashore by a chain gang of convicts. One of them, Valjean (Hugh Jackman) is paroled under the watchful eye of ramrod-straight Javert (Russell Crowe), and only survives through what he sees as holy grace. Funding a retreat into respectability (and broken parole), Valjean becomes a factory owner and boss to many, including the lovely Fantine (Anne Hathaway), who is unjustly fired and soon sells her body to the wretches in order to provide for her sickly daughter Cosette (Isabelle Allen). Valjean is the star, but the soul of the early passages is Fantine, who gets a showstopper ballad (“I Dreamed a Dream”) as she falls into despair.
Cosette, meanwhile, works under the employ of the cretinous bottom feeder Thénardier (Sacha Baron Cohen), an innkeeper so venal that he speaks with a French accent, unlike everyone else. (His song, “Master of the House,” is a delicious ode to unscrupulousness). Valjean purchases Cosette’s freedom and escapes, pursued by the relentless Javert. Nine years later, everyone meets again in Paris, which is engulfed in revolution spurred by the impassioned proletariat. Marius (Eddie Redmayne), a revolutionary, falls desperately in love with Cosette (now Amanda Seyfried). Why does he do this, when the beautiful Eponine (Samantha Barks) clearly loves him? Easy: Marius has read the book. Soon he and his fellowmen are fashioning barricades in a set piece that is the highlight on stage, and rather perfunctory here.
The film is slavishly faithful to the musical’s distilled sense of Hugo. It falters is in its connective tissue, which is thin on stage and thinner here. Characters disappear when the plot requires it, motivations remain murky, and events seem to follow not organically, but because the script (and the original production it’s based on) says so. The film simply doesn’t have enough time to juggle its elements and must rush the story, so moments and characters are robbed of their impact. One late-in-the-game event tries to wring tears, but doesn’t quite due to the film’s overall lightning pace. It is a long film, but it could stand to be longer.
The movie retains the original production’s score (by Alan Boulbil, Claude Michel Schönberg, Jean-Marc Natel), including numbers like “On My Own,” “One Day More,” “Stars,” and more. The resulting soundtrack album might be the best yet of the (numerous) Les Mis recordings out there; the musical performances are for the most part splendid, with top marks going to Jackman, Hathaway, Cohen, and Barks. Crowe rather disappoints as Javert; his singing is okay (at best) , and his overall presence lacks weight, as if he was appearing via green screen along with the unconvincing special effects. He seems to be visiting the film’s story rather than inhabiting it. Seyfried is fine as the older Cosette, but she feels less like a character and more like a prop for the story’s key third-act love triangle.
The director is Tom Hooper (The King’s Speech), who restrains any attempts to open up the narrative, choosing a deliberate style that values actors over spectacle. Hathaway’s big number plays out in a single continuous take that never wavers from a close-up, probably securing her a best supporting actress nomination in one fell swoop. Later, the streets of Paris are realized with exaggerated sets that feel like sets, giving the production an exaggerated, heightened style that compliments the melodrama. Despite the bloodshed inherent in the story, Hooper shies away from too much realism, because he knows Hugo’s material, even without the songs, could never play as realistic, nor should it. It’s an extended parable about class, warfare, honor and love that is inspired by real life but not beholden to it.
For Les Mis fans, the movie is a dream, and I doubt it will disappoint; it may pale in comparison to the movie they’ve envisioned in their own heads for 26 years, but on its own terms it is a fine rendition of a beloved work. Newcomers will be entertained, but might be advised to brush up on their Hugo.
NOTE: Much of the film’s hype and press has revolved around the fact that the actors sung live on set. Commendable. Director Hooper then goes one step further in those press notes and indicates that this is the first movie musical to ever do it. This is incorrect. “Across the Universe” (2007) beat him to it.