With a few thunderous introductory notes, we are thrust into Schönberg’s classic musical, finally brought to the big screen. Based on Victor Hugo’s 1862 novel, the film follows ex-con Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) who, after breaking his parole, attempts to build a life for himself while avoiding dogged pursuit by the policeman Javert (Russell Crowe). Valjean agrees to take custody of a young girl named Cosette (Isabelle Allen, Amanda Seyfried) after her mother falls ill and dies, and the two eventually find themselves entangled in a revolutionary uprising in Paris.
This musical is almost entirely sung through, and Hooper made the innovative decision to record all the film’s singing live. Not only is this an impressive feat to pull off (this is a show that requires a pretty serious amount of vocal range and stamina), but it also allows the actors to be more expressive in their singing, to act through their singing.
And it does seem to pay off. Overall the performances are emotive and nuanced. Jackman carries the film as Valjean, comfortable with almost three hours of screen time and a tremendous amount of singing. Valjean’s parts range from bass notes in the opening number, “Look Down”, to high falsetto towards the end in “Bring Him Home”, and Jackman pulls it all off with style and grace.
Crowe does his best as Javert, although his vocals are uneasy, especially when pitted against Jackman’s. He actually carries the sung dialogue quite well, as his lower register is husky and rich — but when he ascends to the higher notes, his voice becomes reedy and self-conscious. Unfortunately this means that Javert’s bigger numbers are lackluster, both in vocal power and in emotional depth. Crowe does all that he can to compensate for his unimpressive singing, though, and in terms of acting he really breathes life into Javert, a character so staunch and single-minded that he threatens to be two-dimensional (sometimes laughably so).
Surprisingly, the real standout performance in the film comes from Anne Hathaway as Fantine, Cosette’s young mother. Fantine, fired from her factory job, is forced to resort to prostitution in order to continue sending Cosette money, and in her soliloquy “I Dreamed a Dream” she laments the turn her life has taken. Hathaway’s Fantine is fragile and vulnerable, and her singing is hauntingly beautiful — emotionally sincere, clear in tone, with moments of grit and throatiness.
The supporting cast is, for the most part, equally strong. Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter are M & Mme Thénardier, wicked innkeepers that provide some much-needed comedic relief to the plot. (There were several moments in which Cohen had me literally unable to stop laughing, which was a little embarrassing after a while.) Samantha Barks nearly steals Act II as Éponine, the Thénardier’s daughter who is unrequitedly infatuated with Marius (Eddie Redmayne), a young revolutionary in love with Cosette. Seyfried’s Cosette, on the other hand, is beautiful and sincere but still sadly an archetypal character, and her quivering soprano notes leave something to be desired.
The translation of Les Misérables from the stage to the screen does the musical several favors. Because the story follows so many characters, a problem that often arises is that everyone is painted with brushstrokes too broad. Javert can be almost robotic in his devotion to the law, Éponine whiny and self-pitying, Marius a Prince Charming, Cosette a china doll. Hooper’s use of sustained close-ups transforms the sweeping musical into an intimate story — one in which we get to know the characters in all their human detail. Accordingly, many of the actors (Hathaway and Redmayne the most notably) opt for gentler, more fragile renditions of their songs, rendering the great story smaller, more personal.
Conversely, the big screen also allows Hooper to be bigger than the stage: to show the great scope of the world Hugo depicts in his novel. We are taken to prisons, monasteries, battlegrounds, sewers, and homes, all with a vividness that the stage simply cannot achieve. The chase scenes are that much more exhilarating, the battles that much more real. Hooper is also able to cut to flashbacks and different locations with ease, which comes in handy with a story with so many characters.
This is not a perfect film. Some of the ensemble songs are a little garbled, some of the choices are a little overstated. I was not particularly fond of the new songs that were added into the film (“Suddenly”—what a bore!). The film is also three hours long, and for someone who already dislikes musical theater, it will probably be a little much to stomach. (As New Yorker reviewer Anthony Lane punned, “I screamed a scream as time went by.”) If you have some patience and an open mind, however, it’s a mighty story of human grief, determination, and love, and in my opinion it’s worth the three hours.