There was a time when musicals made up a staple of the product coming out of Hollywood. They’ve enjoyed a minor resurgence in recent years, with films like Chicago and Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. Some, like these two titles, have enjoyed a modicum of success. Others, like 2012’s Rock of Ages, fell flat. Broadway, on the other hand, has produced a string of long running hits, and Hollywood has taken notice. The latest musical to make the leap from stage to screen is Les Miserables, a tale of redemption based on the classic novel by Victor Hugo. Director Tom Hooper ( The King’s Speech ) does a terrific job in doing so, creating an entertaining gem of a film, though it’s not without its flaws. More on that later.
The film opens in spectacular fashion, with a foundering ship being dragged into dry-dock by a group of prisoners under the watchful eye of Inspector Javert (Russell Crowe). Among these prisoners is 24601, Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman), who is serving a 19 year sentence (five for stealing a loaf of bread and the rest for trying to run). It is 1815, 23 years after the French monarch Louis XIV was deposed by revolution. Javert informs Valjean that he has earned his parole, but that he must abide by its conditions, or Javert will pursue him and bring him back to prison. Valjean tries to make his way, but has a tough go of things. A kindly priest takes pity on him, offering him food and shelter. Valjean promptly repays the priest’s kindness by stealing the silver. He’s caught, but instead of pressing charges, the priest allows him to keep the silver, telling him to use it to make himself a better man. Valjean vows to do so, tears up his parole papers, and tries to forge a new life. Things shift forward to 1823, where Valjean has created a new identity and life for himself, serving as a factory owner and mayor of the town of Montreuil. Javert appears, serving as the town’s law enforcement, and becomes suspicious of Valjean after witnessing him perform a feat of strength as he saves the life of a man trapped by an overturned cart. Back at the factory, one of the workers, a woman named Fantine (Anne Hathaway), who is down on her luck, trying to make money to send to the caretakers of her daughter Cosette, has a run-in with the foreman and is tossed into the street. Fantine sells her hair and becomes a prostitute, all to provide for her child. One night she has a conflict with a john as he tries to assault her. Valjean intervenes before Javert can arrest her, and he promises to care for her daughter. At the hospital, Fantine dies and Javert confronts Valjean. Valjean escapes, knowing he needs to keep his vow to Fantine and find her daughter.
Valjean eventually finds young Cosette (Isabelle Allen) in the care of an innkeeper and his wife (Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter) who have a daughter, Eponine, of their own (Natalya Wallace). Valjean buys Cosette’s freedom from the pair, and goes to take the girl to Paris. At the city’s north gate he once again avoids Javert. The film then shifts to 1832, where the city of Paris is in turmoil and on the verge of yet another rebellion. Valjean and Cosette, now a young woman (played by Amanda Seyfried), are trying to remain inconspicuous, attempting to blend in with the city. Cosette catches the eye of Marius (Eddie Redmayne), who is immediately smitten with her, much to the chagrin of Eponine (now played by Samantha Barks), who is in Paris along with the innkeepers, now trying to swindle Parisians. Valjean again narrowly evades Javert, and Marius enlists Eponine’s aid in tracking down Cosette. The two meet, and profess their love, but a botched robbery attempt spooks Valjean and he tells Cosette they must try to flee the city. In the meantime, the only political ally of the poor, General Lamarque, dies, and Marius joins a group of revolutionaries led by Enjolras (Aaron Tviet) and accompanied by a street urchin named Gavroche (Daniel Huttlestone) in creating a blockade and trying to rouse the people of Paris to rise up. Tragedy and triumph follow in a showdown with French troops as the movie reaches its emotional and rousing climax.
Hooper does an excellent job at keeping the film moving along at a nice pace, and the set designers do a terrific job at recreating 19th century France. He chooses to have a majority of the dialogue sung rather than spoken, which works to mixed results. Most of the cast prove quite adept at carrying a tune, but Crowe shows his weakness here. It’s not that he’s an awful singer, but he isn’t on par with other cast members. The standouts here are Jackman and Hathaway, who really show off their vocal chops, conveying a wide range of emotions in their performances. Hathaway is particularly heartbreaking during the number “I Dreamed a Dream”, and provides one of those teary eyed inducing moments that appear throughout the film. Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter provide the comic relief, especially during the extended number “Master of the House”, as they steal and swindle guests of their shady establishment. “In My Life” cuts nicely back and forth across four characters, and there are several rousing crowd scenes that serve as set pieces (“At the End of the Day”, “Red and Black”), as well as smaller, poignant songs (“Castle in the Clouds” by young Cosette and “On My Own” with Eponine). It all ends with a rousing number that’ s heartfelt and leaves the viewer a bit misty eyed, but in a good way.
All in all, this is a terrific piece of film-making, and despite it’s couple of flaws, is an entertaining gem from start to finish, and well worth your time. Les Miserables is now available on DVD and Blu-ray.
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