Once upon a time films were made to be spectacles, to be larger than life, to provide a sense of wonderment for the audience. Once upon a time you went to the cinema to be swept off your feet with romance and amazement. Think of The 10 Commandments, Ben Hur, and Casablanca. Over the past several decades filmmakers have gotten away from the sprawling way of telling epic tales. Nowadays we get intimate small films and films that make the unreal seem all too real. Now, there’s nothing wrong with a director making or the audience enjoying a small budget affair that brings a personal tale with it. However, a film such as Les Misérables has no chains and holds nothing back. It’s grandeur at it’s finest.
Tom Hooper, fresh off his Academy award winning turn with The King’s Speech (a very intimate tale made on a small budget), brings us the best film adaptation of a musical the cinematic world has ever seen. Sure the likes of West Side Story, The Sound of Music, and Chicago pioneered the genre but it’s that very same genre which has grown increasingly irrelevant over the past 20 years. It’s an amazing feat unto itself that Hooper was able to wrestle up the star-studded cast for Les Mis considering the genre has been dead.
If you’re not familiar with the story of Les Misérables it centers around the character of Jean Valjean (played by the amazing Hugh Jackman – in his best performance of this year and his career) who steals a loaf of bread to feed his sister and nephew and is sentenced to 20 years in prison for the crime. Once he serves his 20 years he is paroled but marked for life by his crimes, after having his eyes opened by a priest he turns to a life of God and forsakes the name ‘Jean Valjean’. While he’s busy forming his new life, he’s being hunted by the French police inspector Javert (miscast Russell Crowe) at every turn. Nearly 10 years later we catch up with Valjean as he’s the mayor of a small town in France while also running many factories. He stumbles across a sick/dying prostitute – who was fired from one of Valjean’s factory’s – Fantine (beautifully sung and acted by Anne Hathaway) – and vows to take care of Fantine’s daughter, Cosette (excellent performances by both Isabelle Allen and Amanda Seyfried), as his own. Cosette falls in love with a young French revolutionist, Marius (convincingly played by Eddie Redmayne), but Javerts endless pursuit of Valjean does not allow for Cosette and Marius much time to explore their love. The story has a climatic ending centering around the French revolutionists facing off against the French army.
Admittedly the film’s worst things – and there isn’t much to pick on – is the casting of Russell Crowe as Javert and the film’s second act. Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m a musical fan but I don’t know that much about the history of Javert’s character. Crowe plays the character to a tee but he often seems too uptight and the tone of his voice doesn’t match my vision of the character. Someone like Jeremy Irons would have suited this role better. As far as the second act goes, the entire first hour of the film is fantastic, a real sight to behold but once the movie moves past Anne Hathaway’s character you can really spot the impact she had. You might find yourself looking at your watch during the second act. It’s nothing against Hooper or the actors, just a combination of remaining faithful to the source material and the character’s lines being sung.
For the good things, there’s about two hours and 20 minutes worth of them. From the Tony winning performance by Jackman, to Hathaway’s “I Dreamed a Dream” being the defacto version of that song, all the way down to maybe the best sequence in the entire film headed up by Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baren Cohen version of “Master of the House”. The film is a real gem and should have no problem winning Best Picture at the Academy Awards in February.
Now, I know film critics have been picking at Les Mis and Tom Hooper’s direction due to all of the close-ups of the actor’s faces. However, as close-up as it was, the choice to show the agony/dispair/happiness/anguish on the character’s faces was essential to the point of the film. You can’t explain Fantine’s emotion from 12 feet away, you have to get right up on her as she’s wallowing in the fact that she’s been dead a long time and she’s only now feeling the effects. The same goes for the shots of Jackman, you can’t accurately show Valjean’s guilt or the scared look on his face without getting so close. It’s an effect that isn’t for everyone but really suits this film well.
Take a box of Kleenex with you when you go as you’re bound to shed tears a handful of times. Be on the look out for Daniel Huttlestone in the future, kids has an extremely bright future ahead of him.