First thing’s first – fans of Les Misérables can breathe a deep sigh of relief. This film is good. I promise.
Assurances aside, don’t expect the version of the musical you've grown accustomed to on stage. Tom Hooper’s vision – with the day-to-day assistance of show creators Cameron Macintosh, Alain Boublil, Claud-Michel Schonberg and Herbie Kretzmer – offers a gritty, toughened take on the West End favourite.
If you are coming to Les Misérables with fresh eyes, you will be greeted by Victor Hugo’s timeless plot richly illustrated by emotive lyrics and some Oscar-worthy performances from the film’s star-studded cast. But if, like me, you have spent your formative years reciting the famous score by heart, the big-screen adaptation will force you to reconsider the brutal hardship and intense emotional pain upon which the musical is based.
The film opens with an unrecognisable Hugh Jackman, haggard and caked with grime as he toils under the sharp eye of Russell Crowe’s Inspector Javert. While Crowe’s vocal capabilities at times detract from his menacing presence and iron-fisted pursuit, Jackman’s performance as ex-convict Jean Valjean is nothing short of staggering. From his crazed deliverance of What Have I Done? to his torn rendition of Who Am I?, his commitment and transformation into Les Misérables' wronged hero is a fine example of his craft – and more importantly generates the compassion from the audience required to sustain the film’s lengthy two and a half hour running time.
And from one touted Oscar nomination to another – Anne Hathaway’s tortured turn as troubled prostitute Fantine will stay with you for days. Her heart-breaking descent into destitution required a shocking physical transformation from Hathaway – including the live shearing of her hair in exchange for the treasured ten francs she believes will save her young daughter, Cosette. Tom Hooper invests in her performance of iconic song I Dreamed A Dream – which incidentally could not be further from Susan Boyle’s crowd-rousing rendition – by eschewing fancy gimmicks in favour of an extended close up shot that beautifully captures Fantine's crushed dreams and haunting torment.
He employs a similar technique for street urchin Éponine’s ode to unrequited love, On My Own, to equally marvellous effect. Les Misérables has long been criticised for leaving strong female actresses with supporting roles, but newcomer Samantha Barks (who beat out top Hollywood actresses to play the role she first portrayed on stage) shines under The King’s Speech helmer’s direction.
Hooper broke with convention by pushing for his cast to sing the tracks live (instead of miming to a pre-record) and securing a nine-week rehearsal slot to perfect the film’s many musical numbers. But it’s a gamble that has undoubtedly paid off. The immediacy and feverish intensity the songs often achieve is a direct reflection of the freedom the decision enabled the cast to operate within. Where the likes of Chicago and Mamma Mia may have felt formulaic, Les Misérables’ actors have the added passion that allows them to carry the 200-year-old plot into the present day.
One particular example is Eddie Redmayne’s Marius – the love-struck student and revolutionary, desperately in love with Amanda Seyfried’s Cosette. Redmayne’s quivery, conflicted presence is the unexpected success of the production. The Oscars chatter may have paid lip service to Jackman’s and Hathaway’s performances but the Eton alumni deserves a mention for more than his dreamboat looks. There are a few of the bigger numbers where Michael Ball’s transcendent warble is missed, but Redmayne’s captivating presence anchors the film’s second half as he battles against split loyalties between the love of his life and his political beliefs.
Unfortunately, having to convince an audience you’ve fallen in love with Seyfried’s Cosette is a tough gig. If there’s one weak link in the chain it’s her doe-eyed, insipid performance which fails to ignite any degree of connection with the viewer. Playing Valjean’s meek charge has limited creative scope but for all of Seyfried’s A-list clout, it is Barks’ chemistry with Redmayne which succeeds in striking a chord with the audience – with her premature death inciting the emotion that Seyfried fails to deliver.
But her young counterpart – ten-year-old Isabelle Allen, plucked from obscurity to star in her first feature film – makes a commendable breakthrough as the orphaned Cosette, matched by Daniel Huddlestone’s admirable performance as spirited youngster Gavroche who joins forces with the revolutionary students on their doomed barricade.
Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen do what they do best playing darkly comic innkeepers the Thénardiers, thieving and sleazing their way through 19th century Paris. Neither can be commended for their vocal abilities – with Cohen’s indecisive accent bizarrely oscillating between Borat and Ali G – but the Burton-esque quality they bring to the roles aligns nicely with Hooper’s grimy portrayal of the impoverished French streets.
At times the mood teeters into over-sentimentality; Gavroche’s spirited revival of Do You Hear The People Sing from the barricade is a close shave, but Javert’s pained review of the battle victims provides a medicinal balance, and I challenge you not to feel your eyes prickle during Jackman’s final scenes.
This is not a revolutionary adaptation of the West End favourite, but instead a close retelling of the story and score that has attracted 60 million to the stage show – a wise move that reflects the close partnership between the production’s creators and adaptors. But where a trip to the theatre affords you an interval to recover, keeping the attention of cinema-goers throughout is a considerable challenge.
Enjoyment of Les Misérables requires emotional investment to avoid the rich narrative being swamped by Hooper's epic locations. In this case the cast more than deliver, resulting in an adaptation that fully does justice to the much-loved tale it brings to life. Take it from a die-hard fan - go and see it!