This review comes to you from a man who loves a good musical—and is a diehard fan of Les Misérables. Haters of movie musicals everywhere, I beseech you: Give this one a chance! Lovers of this musical ... unite! The movie is a blast!
Les Misérables, based on the Victor Hugo novel set in 19th-century France, has always been the epitome of a big musical done right. When I saw it on Broadway, I remember thinking something along the lines of, "There's no way in hell anybody could ever put this on the big screen in a respectable fashion." To mount a worthy production, one would need a big budget, and one would need big stars with box-office allure who can sing like no other. I'm happy to report that director Tom Hooper didn't just find stars who can sing; those stars make you freaking cry when they are singing. They are that good.
Hooper (The King's Speech) gathered his glorious cast, and then he went and made things even more complicated: The actors and actresses in this muscular musical sing live on set. There are no comfy sound booths with fancy mineral water. What you see and hear in this movie is the product of live takes.
It's absolutely remarkable. The performance by Hugh Jackman, in the central role of notorious bread-stealer Jean Valjean, is more than Oscar-worthy; his work here requires an Oscar. His physical presence is appropriately commanding, and his voice is miraculous. This is a role that could turn to schmaltz in the wrong hands, but rest assured that what you're seeing is one of musical cinema history's greatest, most-uncompromising performances.
Shockingly, his is not the best performance in the movie. That honor goes to Anne Hathaway as Fantine, the betrayed factory worker turned prostitute who's desperately trying to care for daughter Cosette (played by the sweetly voiced Isabelle Allen as a child). Hathaway delivers "I Dreamed a Dream" in one devastatingly beautiful take that will drop many a jaw into many a lap.
Some will point to Russell Crowe's Javert as the film's weak link, and in some ways, it is. Crowe's voice doesn't compare to the likes of Jackman and Hathaway, but his diminished vocals help make his Javert more pathetic.
Javert, the dogged lawman who destroys his life by unrelentingly pursuing the fugitive Valjean, has long been a literary loser, and Crowe brings a marked sadness to him. The fact that his voice isn't so grand just makes his Javert lonelier and bleaker. I was expecting something more booming, but this interpretation is growing on me.
Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter are appropriately disgusting as innkeepers Thénardier and Madame Thénardier. Amanda Seyfried, after the failure of Mamma Mia!, gets to put her capable voice to a better test as the grown Cosette, while Eddie Redmayne (My Week With Marilyn) gives a breakthrough performance as her suitor, Marius.
The coveted role of Éponine (for which Taylor Swift was once rumored) has gone to Samantha Barks, who was featured in the acclaimed Les Misérables in Concert: The 25th Anniversary. Hooper made the right choice; her rendition of "A Little Fall of Rain" qualifies as the best I've heard.
Hooper does more than put a bunch of great actors and voices in play. His staging of the musical is superbly accomplished. When Daniel Huttlestone emerges from a huge elephant statue and delivers "Paris/Look Down" from the back of a moving horse carriage, it's pure movie magic. The costuming, art direction and sets are all impeccable.
Those familiar with the show know that a good chunk of it takes place on a pile of furniture. Hooper does great things with the infamous last stand in the street.
By the time Cosette and Valjean have their last meeting, you have seen so many moments of grandeur that it's hard to keep track. The decision to have the actors sing live was a risky one, but it pays off in a big way.
Am I fawning? You bet I am. It's such a wonderful thing to see something that delivers more than what you were expecting. Nothing hurts a film critic more than a long-awaited movie that falls short. (I'm looking at you, Hobbit!) If either Hathaway or Jackman go home Oscar-less, that would be a shame.
Les Misérables is so much more than a worthy adaptation of a long cherished musical. It's a masterful game-changer when it comes to movie musicals. I could go on and on about how great it is, but words of praise can't possibly do it justice. See it.