One of this year's Academy Award nominees for best picture, “Les Miserables” has become a huge sensation with audiences worldwide, grossing more that $300 million in its first several weeks of release. I have mixed feelings about it overall, but I admire most of the performances. Director Tom Hooper deserves praise for delivering a rich movie experience that differs from the Broadway musical on which it's based.
Before it became one of Broadway's longest-running musicals, “Les Miserables” was a novel written by Victor Hugo in the 1860s. The new movie tells basically the same story as its predecessors: A thief named Valjean (Hugh Jackman) is relentlessly pursued by a police inspector named Javert (Russell Crowe). It begins in 1815 and ends in Paris in 1832, when student groups led an unsuccessful rebellion against the monarchy.
Aside from the spectacular opening number, “Look Down,” which shows Valjean in a chain gang, I'm not much of a fan of the early parts of the movie, which establish what will be the story's central rivalry. Jackman and Crowe's scenes together are arguably the film's weakest, as the actors strain to convey animosity through song. (This is as good a time as any to mention the film has virtually no spoken dialogue; consider that fair warning if you're not a fan of the musical genre.)
As the ill-fated Fantine, best supporting actress nominee Anne Hathaway provides a bright spot in the film's wretched first hour. Her character's shocking downward trajectory, from factory worker to prostitute to young victim of consumption, is almost too heartbreaking to take. But you won't be able to take your eyes off of Hathaway. She all but rips your heart out when she sings “I Dreamed a Dream”, performed in an astonishing single take that's far and away the film's highlight. The way Hathaway burns briefly but brilliantly and then devastatingly expires might just be enough to win the actress her first Oscar.
Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen, who were both so good in Tim Burton's film adaptation of “Sweeney Todd”, make welcome appearances as a couple of misfits who take Fantine's orphan daughter under their wing. The second hour is a lot sunnier than the first, as the film jumps in time to when Fantine's daughter, Cosette (Amanda Seyfried), is involved in a love triangle with a radical student named Marius (Eddie Redmayne) and his friend, Eponine (Samantha Barks). Still, even here the tone of the film is bittersweet, never more so than when the jilted Eponine sings “On My Own” in the rain.
Jackman is an acclaimed stage actor and singer (most notably for his Tony Award-winning performance in “The Boy from Oz”), but I don't think he's ever quite reached his full potential as an actor on the big screen. A film adaptation of a Broadway musical would seem to be an ideal fit for him, but, alas, he's overshadowed by the other performers. (The Academy thought otherwise, nominating him for best actor). Crowe fares much better, especially in scenes where Javert is less angry and becomes more introspective. I especially enjoyed his rendition of “Stars”, which he sings with the same soft romantic voice he uses when he performs with his band The Ordinary Fear of God.
Hooper (who won an Oscar for directing “The King's Speech”) has made an admirable effort to give audiences a different experience than the one offered by the Broadway production of “Les Miserables”. He films the performances largely in close-up; the effect is like being lifted out of your seat and pushed to within inches of the actors' faces. This approach doesn't always work, but sometimes it pays off spectacularly (particularly with Hathaway). Hooper should be commended for faithfully rendering Hugo's sympathetic portrait of the revolutionaries, most memorably personified here by a pipsqueak-voiced rebel named Gavroche (Daniel Huttlestone). I'd be lying if I said I didn't tear up during a few of Gavroche's musical numbers, especially the rousing “Do You Hear the People Sing?” Hooper's movie is far from perfect, but its emotional power is undeniable.
“Les Miserables” is playing this weekend at the Augusta Historic Theatre, 523 State Street. Showtime is 7:30pm on Saturday and 2pm on Sunday. Tickets are $6.
Stephen is an AHS graduate who studied film and journalism in college. His favorite movie musicals include “Singin' in the Rain” and “Hair”. He lives in Wichita.