First published in 1862, Victor Hugo's five-volume Les Misérables is now considered one of the greatest novels of the nineteenth century. Beginning in 1815 and culminating in the 1832 June Rebellion in Paris, the story follows the lives and interactions of a slew of characters, but primarily focuses on the struggles of burly ex-convict Jean Valjean and his experience of redemption after serving nineteen years in jail. Along the way we are swept into a revolutionary France where a group of young idealists make their last stand at a street barricade.
Then in 1983, about six months after producer Cameron Mackintosh had opened Cats on Broadway, he received a copy of the French concept album from director Peter Farago. Farago had been impressed by the work and asked Mackintosh to produce an English language version of the show. Initially reluctant, Mackintosh eventually agreed. Mackintosh in conjunction with the Royal Shakespeare Company assembled a production team to adapt the French musical for a British audience. After two years in development the English-language version opened in London on 8 October 1985 by the Royal Shakespeare Company at the Barbican Centre. The success of the West End musical led to a Broadway production and the rest, as they say, is history. Until now.
Directed by Tom Hooper (The King's Speech) and produced by Working Title Films the musical has been adapted to the screen in spectacular style worthy of the stage shows 8 Tony Awards.
Right from the start the sheer scale of the production is impressive, helped in part by Danny Cohens gloriously immersive cinematography. The camera sweeps over huge gilded warships, blasted by coastal waves as hundreds of wretched prisoners pull on waterlogged ropes, inching one of the bulbous monsters into the Toulon dry dock. This vast chain gang sings Look Down in a rumbling guttural bass that immediately sets the tone. This is not the sort of musical where people dance their cares away in tap shoes, but one where people’s cares seem to rip the songs from their throats. Throughout these moments of suffering and romance, Tom Hooper’s adaptation never fails to take its subject matter seriously, its raw brutal edge in tune with Victor Hugo’s melodrama of the downtrodden and destitute.
Hugh Jackman (X-Men, The Prestige, Australia) is brilliantly cast, matching Jean Valjean's fabled strength as he carries the plot on his shoulders. Only he and Russell Crowe’s (Gladiator, A Beautiful Mind, State Of Play) Javert remain the only constants through the 17 years of the film’s plot.
We first meet Valjean as a convict, demanding that his jailer respect him as a fellow human being, only to be rebuffed by dogged Javert. During parole he is faced with rejection and prejudice, descending into animal-like desperation and spitting bitterness before a miraculous second chance sees Valjean resolve to match the faith shown in him in the film's most emotionally complex scene. His righteous fury raging with a rekindled sense of virtue, wounded pride and a thirst for justice. With new hopes of redemption, the morally upright Valjean emerges.
As with all the film's scenes of high emotion, this is entirely communicated through song. Every single emotion the character is experiencing is their on screen. Every breaking heart. Every popping vein. Full frame with little to no cutaway edits. Quite simply some of the most astonishing musical performances put to celluloid. There will be tears and not just those from the performing cast.
Further more, this adaption breaks the mould for screen musicals by having each cast member perform their songs live on set with only a single piano played through an ear piece as accompaniment. Hooper's commitment to live performance no doubt added hugely to the stress of the shoot, but in return for a few wobbly notes and pitching he gets a unique, visceral punch. The vocals aren't as flawless as, say, Alfie Boe who made the role of Valjean his own in the stage musical. Jackman struggles with the famously difficult Bring Him Home and at times Crowe wobbles into his rock background stylings, but the drama is possibly stronger for it.
Not everything is so successful. Some of the Paris scenes feel small and staged, in jarring contrast to the outdoor scenes which deliver a glorious Delacroix look and scale. Many of which were actually filmed in Greenwich, London, Portsmouth and Winchester. Only Gourdon served as a French location.
For the most part this is an immersive wallow in squalor and degradation, only lightened intermittently by Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter (already seen flexing their vocal muscle together in Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street) as a pair of comical innkeepers.
The sprawling structure of the show means that high emotion breaks in wave after wave without reprieve. Those incredible cinematic close-ups magnifying the impact. The best of which sees Anne Hathaway (Becoming Jane, Alice in Wonderland, The Dark Knight Rises) finally reclaim I Dreamed A Dream from Susan Boyle and ruin the song for all who follow her. All at once broken, angry and defiant, it is a definitive performance. Though her part amounts to barely a montage and this singular sublime solo, don’t be surprised to see her on the Oscar podium come February.
But after that emotional wallop, the love story between Marius (Eddie Redmayne) and Valjean's adopted inherently drippy Cosette (Amanda Seyfried) ultimately leaves you impatient to get to the revolutionary stuff. It is here where a group of students led by the idealistic Enjolras (Aaron Tveit) fight a hopeless uprising in the people's name and Javert encounters Valjean once more. It's when these big moments arrive that the cast rises with full-throated determination and deliver a musical unlike any other. Providing a new model for movie musicals to come.