Please don't expect a bipartisan review of LES MISERABLES from me. First, I remember taking a group of Humanities students to see The Phantom of the Opera and Les Miserables with their original casts on Broadway. As they left Phantom, they were gushing with praise for the romantic story, music, and special effects (oh, that chandelier!). The next night, as Les Miz ended, not only the girls but also several football players trailed out of the theater in tears, most unable to express how they felt about the emotionally draining/elating closing. I was right there with them, sobbing away.
So when I read David Edelstein's vicious attack on Tom Hooper's film version of this epic theater piece, I thought I was living in a parallel universe, one which is moved by epic story-telling, both intimate and grand music, and one of the greatest musical casts since SINGIN' IN THE RAIN. But enough faint praise. Let's get down to specifics. Director Hooper (Oscar, THE KING'S SPEECH) has a grand vision that lifts the stagebound musical into a more realistic, though often stylized, world. Instead of seeing characters in spotlights, we see them in interlocking cuts expressing their sentiments both to other cast members and to the audience. This is one of the great advantages of film. The opening sequence masterfully introduces Jean Val-Jean (Hugh Jackman in great acting and singing form) as he and fellow convicts attempt to lug a giant ship ashore. The themes of injustice to the poor and the hope for atonement and regeneration dominate the film in both song and sight. In an early scene the workers and the poor sing:
At the end of the day you're another day older
And that's all you can say for the life of the poor
It's a struggle, it's a war
And there's nothing that anyone's giving
One more day standing about, what is it for?
One day less to be living.
Director Hooper pans across the singers, forcing us to look at desperate, misshapen, and hopeless faces and not avoid them as we often avoid the poor we see in our own experience. Moments later we meet a prime example of grinding poverty, Fantine, played and sung with ferocious intensity by Anne Hathaway. Her show-stopping song "I Dreamed a Dream," in which she recalls her descent into hopelessness is the film's highlight. Fantine dies in the arms of Jean Val-Jean, spurring several plots forward. He saves and adopts Fantine's daughter Cosette, who grows into the lovely and innocent Amanda Seyfried. Jean Val-Jean is now hiding in plain sight and trying to avoid capture from his nemesis Javert (Russell Crowe, dramatically powerful, vocally tenuous at best). All of this is played against the failed Revolution of 1832 . Marius, played and sung beautifully by Eddie Tremayne, has fallen in love with Cosette, and she with him, while the hapless Eponine (Samantha Banks, the best and most professional voice in the film) looks on longingly. One of the best numbers in the film is their impassioned trio "A Heart full of Love," which is only one of the many numbers inspired by operatic classics.
The film's great climax comes as the students build a barricade out of furniture and empty coffins while singing "Do you Hear the People Sing?". This was a sensation on Broadway, but in the film it opens up to the streets of Paris, as people throw their furniture from the windows above to show their solidarity. "Do You Hear the People Sing? is recalled at the end of the film as Jean Val-Jean is called to Heaven. Both scenes are unabashedly emotional, and it takes a hard heart not to react. I feel the same way about the entire film. LES MISERABLES sweeps its viewers through a revolution and a multitude of love stories, betrayals, and deaths. Whether small or large, director Hooper infuses each scene with passion and artistry. But let's not forget what really makes LES MISERABLES a classic. It's the music. One of the best scores in musical theater history, LES MISERABLES was written by Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schonberg and spans musical genres from farce ("Master of the House," in which Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen clown it up in fine style) to love songs to stirring patriotic anthems. Unlike some film adaptations, LES MISERABLES doesn't underplay the music and the singing. The actors all did their own singing and were recorded on film and soundtrack, unlike the dubbing usually done in films like CHICAGO. The effect is one of immediacy and realism in the most unreal of movie genres...the Musical.