While there’s nothing as real and immediate as seeing actors and singers performing, emoting on a stage, the film adaptation of the world’s longest-running musical, Les Misérables, is a moving spectacle on a massive scale. It’s stuffed with more than enough backbreaking, heartbreaking, spirit-crushing struggle and tragedy to live up to its title.
Placing the musical on the screen in both epic and intimate style, Tom Hooper, an Oscar winner for The King’s Speech, directed this movie adaptation of Alain Boublil and Claude-Michael Schönberg’s stage musical, an adaptation of Victor Hugo’s novel about an unfortunate collection of souls dwelling in early 19th-century France.
Hooper assembles a top-flight ensemble cast to tell the tragic tale, beginning with Hugh Jackman as Jean Valjean, circa 1815.
Jackman, a musical theater veteran and Tony award winner, is back on Broadway, so to speak, as the movie’s Valjean. He sings well and, most of all, expresses his character’s waves of emotion with heartfelt earnestness.
The movie simultaneously introduces the story’s hero and villain. As Valjean and his fellow convicts haul a ship into the port of Toulon, the imperious Javert, played by Russell Crowe, monitors the captives. Javert develops an obsession with Valjean, a man who was condemned to years of hard labor for the crime of stealing a loaf of bread for a sick child.
There are hints of sadism in Crowe’s Javert, but the character’s sung dialogue offers another explanation for his behavior. Javert proclaims himself a man of duty, a dedicated officer of the law driven by his own shameful past. But Javert must also be a cruel ideologue. He’s a creature possessed by a perverted sense of justice, someone far too willing to inflict suffering in the name of the law.
Crowe strikes a heavy presence as this villain in a uniform, but not enough to weigh down the sweep of events. And for an actor not accustomed to musicals, he sings well enough.
While Jackman does his poignant work as Valjean, the movie’s large cast of characters rises to the occasion, delivering several standout performances of key characters. Most prominent among them, of course, is the doomed Fantine.
Anne Hathaway co-stars as the poor single mother who is dismissed from her job at a factory that Valjean, having made a successful new life for himself, owns in the town of Montreuil.
After Fantine is unjustly fired by Valjean’s factory manager, she plunges into poverty and prostitution. An emotional Hathaway, another of the film’s excellent musical theater talents, sings what likely is the most loved of Les Misérables’ songs, “I Dreamed a Dream.” Already defeated by despair, Fantine has even further to fall.
Fantine’s daughter, Cosette (played in her younger version by Isabelle Allen), is unaware of her mother’s increasing misery. Cosette has misery of her own. She sings of a castle in the clouds, far from the seedy inn in which she works as a ragged servant.
Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter, both of whom did similar duty in Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, supply Les Misérables’ comic relief. They play the greedy innkeepers with whom Cosette unhappily resides.
Les Misérables leaps forward in time to critical periods in its characters’ lives. By the time Cosette is a young woman, living with her benevolent guardian, Valjean, discontent is again rising among the poor people of Paris.
Just as the hoped-for revolution is to begin, Cosette (Amanda Seyfried) and a young, would-be revolutionary, Marius (Eddie Redmayne), experience love at first sight. Their love produces even more misery in Les Misérables. Éponine, a young woman whose passion for Marius goes unrequited, must watch Cosette and Marius fall for each other. Playing Éponine, Samantha Barks pulls heartstrings as she longs for the inaccessible Marius.
Likely to be this year’s biggest inspiration for tears shed in movie theaters, Les Misérables is a suitably tender, sad and stirring adaptation of the beloved stage musical.