Film review LES MISERABLES
This review first appeared in the Sunday Star-Times, 6th January 2013
If you’re already a fan of hearing the people sing the songs of angry men, you’ll be eagerly awaiting the release of Tom Hooper’s (Oscar-winning director of The King’s Speech) cinematic rendition of the hugely popular stage musical. It answers the question “Can one successfully bring theatre to the big screen?” and drops the guillotine on any qualms about the casting of actors-before-singers Anne Hathaway, Hugh Jackman and Russell Crowe.
Victor Hugo surely never imagined his 1862 French historical novel about revolution, grace and impoverished death would be set to song, but ever since the mid-80s we have been flocking to West End productions, singing along to the CD, and performing the musical numbers at school. (There have been umpteen film versions of the book, but apart from concert movies, this is the first film of the musical.)
The story starts with Jackman’s Jean Valjean being released from 19 years’ imprisonment for stealing a loaf of bread, and Inspector Javert (a typically earnest Crowe) is established as he who will hunt Valjean for the rest of the story. Valjean’s ensuing “rehabilitation” from prisoner to prominent townsman brings him into contact with the desperate Fantine (Hathaway, whose performance of signature song “I Dreamed a Dream” is a tour de force) and later Fantine’s daughter Cosette (Amanda Seyfried from Mamma Mia whose singing voice, though tuneful, unfortunately evokes the Chipmunks).
The actors sang live on set rather than pre-recording and then lip-syncing, and Hooper has employed a more theatrical method of filming many of the core numbers in one long shot, which is impressive indeed as Eponine sings with a broken heart and Fantine teeters on the brink of death without the camera cutting away.
Alleviating the bleakness are Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter as the fetid, dishonest Master and Mistress of the House. The young children are terrific, the chorus of young men at the barricades sing like a choir of baritone angels, and the biggest surprise of all is the extremely accomplished Eddie Redmayne (My Week with Marilyn) as Marius.
Reminiscent of Moulin Rouge in its style and bombast but without the twinkle in its eye, this is a faithful adaptation with only a few shifts in dialogue and one new song (created specially by the original composer). Somehow the medium of film makes the narrative much clearer, a blessing considering the film’s length, its only inescapable downside. However, at the end of the day it’s a jolly good show.