Prisoner 24601, known as Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman), is released from prison and breaks parole to create a new life for himself while evading the grip of the persistent Inspector Javert (Russell Crowe). Set in early revolutionary France, the story reaches resolution against the background of the June Rebellion.
The opening moments of Les Miserables, make magnificent big-screen spectacle. We’re on some forsaken coastline; it’s Toulon, 1815. There is a storm and it’s a beaut. The sky is charcoal, the sound screams and heaves, and the seas swallow all in the best tradition of Mother Nature and Cecil B. de Mille. The action has a legion of wretched convicts – all chained and beaten – hauling a wrecked ship into a dry dock and watched over by a hulking, cranky looking guard Javert (Russell Crowe). Amongst these prisoners is Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman). He’s reached the end of a 19-year sentence for stealing some bread. Since this is the musical of Victor Hugo’s famous story the gathered ensemble sings a sad tune while being punished and soaked. And in fact nobody seems to stop singing for two-and-a-half hours; the time it takes for Hugo’s tale of dogged pursuit, poverty, and injustice to play out.
Les Mis makes for an odd and contradictory movie experience.
Still, this isn’t The Sound of Music. There’s nothing scrubbed clean about the movie version of Les Mis even if at heart it remains a monument to show-tunes and lush romance. The look is all poo-brown and soot; you can almost smell the stench.
Directed by Tom Hooper, Les Mis makes for an odd and contradictory movie experience, mostly because the grotty details and mood don’t at all feel like a musical. Sung-through like the stage original, it’s so lived-in and real that the wall-to-wall numbers too often feel like they are an operetta workshop intruding on some 'straight’ vision of Hugo’s tragic narrative. And Hooper’s amped style feels off; the CGI mastery, the reliance on can’t-miss thematic imagery and the sheer unapologetic earnestness of the thing screams 'seriousness’. It’s leaden; when the conventional big-tune singalong showstoppers come like 'Do You Hear the People Sing?’ the film starts to fly; it’s a relief from both the prevailing gloom and stage show’s leaden style.
Published in 1862, the 1400-page novel of Les Miserables is perhaps the great pursuit saga. Once Valjean is out of gaol, his luck is turned around by kindness. This man with murder in his heart comes to believe in charity as the great virtue. Breaking parole he assumes a role as a distinguished gentleman, widely respected in the community. Out of a good and stout heart he raises an orphan. But all the while he hides his true identity and his shameful past. Javert, the heartless, unwavering agent of authority and law does not believe that a man like Valjean can ever be redeemed; it seems that Javert will find no peace until his quarry is in chains once more. This duel of wills and brute strength finds its climax in the Paris uprising of 1832.
When the stage show came out the critics delivered a beating; it was wet kitsch and there were serious liberties taken with Hugo; but that seems wrong-headed and precious"¦ I mean, look what the stage musical did to Jesus? Didn’t they get that when it comes to Broadway and its ilk nothing’s sacred?
Like the stage version, the film emphasises the romance between Valjean’s orphaned-child Cosette (Amanda Seyfried) and her young rebel suitor Marius (Eddie Redmayne). And there’s some laboured campy comic relief in the form of Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter, as con artists who come into Valjean’s orbit to make mischief. The love story and the gags feel like they belong in a film that’s fluffier than this one.
Hooper has gone in for what might be called 'surface realism’; the cast – from the leads down to all the extras – look tired and emotional and all have bad teeth and skin problems. Anne Hathaway appears as though she’s shed a third of her body weight for her role as the sad victim of Hugo’s mean streets, Fantine.
In flogging his movie, Hooper has made much of the fact that he filmed the music numbers 'live’. It gives an excitement to the vocal track to be sure; but it also means that the shooting and cutting take on a rigid form that over the length of the picture, turns stale. Still, at times that commitment to the moment and the actor yields a breathless sort of excitement; the show's three-hanky set piece, 'I Dreamed a Dream’, performed by Hathaway, is done close-up, in a single take. The effect is soulful and strong, and it's one of the film's rare moments of emotional intimacy.
In the leads, Jackman and Crowe are fine, or at least they are within the context of the style that Hooper has lumbered them with. Jackman, tough, tender, strong of voice, carries the movie. Crowe’s voice is, famously, not much of an instrument. Hooper wisely plays on the actor’s natural power and dignity; his vocals don’t emote as eloquently as do his jutting jaw and steely squint.
The director’s dedication to a certain kind of veracity might suggest that Hooper is taking Victor Hugo more seriously than the originators of the stage show. The songs and music still stir but the movie comes off as hysterical rather than moving; the dour mood is claustrophobic. It just might be that Hooper and the film’s producers feel the terrible weight of a monstrously popular show that’s brazenly touted even by its fans as a wonderful 'guilty pleasure’.