With several household names, a smattering of West End talent, a visionary director as well as a-never-done-before live song filming process, Tom Hooper’s Les Miserables would already have earned the hysterical excitement surrounding it, not to mention the countless award nominations trailing in its wake on those credentials alone. Throw in the fact that it’s based on one of, if not the most successful musicals of all time, and it’s almost too much to bear.
Staying relatively true to the stage story, as well as throwing in the odd extra titbit from Victor Hugo’s doorstop of a novel, Les Miserables follows Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) a freed convict who breaks parole hoping to become a ‘better man’. With his formidable arch nemesis Inspector Javert (Russell Crowe) perpetually snapping at his heels, Valjean adopts the orphaned Cosette (Amanda Seyfried), the daughter of a desperate prostitute who once worked in his factory (Anne Hathaway). Meanwhile, a group of students plot rebellion and revolution against the French bourgeoisie, fed up of living like slaves whilst the ‘fat ones’ reign supreme. One of these students is Marius, (Eddie Redmayne). Well-intentioned but essentially naïve, Marius is, in the knowledgeable words of Michael Ball, ‘a bit of a drip’. Nonetheless, the sparky Eponine, (Samantha Barks) daughter of the conniving Madam and Monsieur Thenardier (Helena Bonham Carter & Sacha Baron Cohen), the former guardians of the young Cosette, is head over heels in love with him. To poor ‘Ponine’s dismay, Marius and Cosette fall in love with each other, with Valjean’s love for his adoptive daughter taking him right into the midst of the uprising in order to protect the object of her desire, putting his own life on the line along with the plucky students.
With so much character development going on within the context of such massively emotive ideas, Les Miserables has always been an epic story. Showing Cameron Mackintosh’s production on the big screen for the first time, however, allows a sense of scale like never before. The opening scene, as the camera sweeps into the harbour where the starving convicts pull in the ships, is breath taking, as is the cliff top on which Valjean rips up his papers and begins his life anew. Hooper’s relentless close ups on his actors also make it a far more intense journey than before, with the live singing only adding to the feeling of immediacy. There is no escape, with every bead of sweat, every fleck of spittle and every eyelid twitch on the downtrodden character’s faces blown up in front of us.
Few actors could live up to such scrutiny, and Hugh Jackman in particular truly delivers. Emphasising the emotion in his words by speaking, or even whispering choice parts of his songs, the words ‘Oscar nomination’ would be circling the air life flies around his prison-shaven head even if it hadn’t already been announced. Anne Hathaway gives the performance of her career so far as the desperate Fantine, as does Eddie Redmayne, who gives a searingly real rendition of the beautiful 'Empty Chairs at Empty Tables'- don’t forget your tissues. Russell Crowe has been dividing opinion, and will most likely continue to do so. In terms of acting ability, he has the perfect level or presence and authority for Javert but, sadly, without the singing voice to back it up. A little touch he himself decided to add to the character not long before Javert’s suicide is heart-warming, however, and perfectly demonstrates the subtle beginnings of the character’s eventual break down. Baron Cohen and Bonham Carter have a lot of fun with the Thenardiers, showing them more as a unit than has been done before, with Amanda Seyfried and Daniel Huttlestone looking the part as Cosette and Gavroche.
It is with Sam Barks and with the students, however, that the talent of the stage show comes alive, tying together a rendition of the ever rousing ‘One Day More’ that it is difficult not to applaud. Aaron Tveit is fabulous as their passionate leader Enjolras, with many of those following him played by actors from the stage show over the years. Their deaths feel every bit as important and poignant as they do in the Queen’s Theatre, but, seeing their eyes as they die in the way that we do, it is no surprise that it feels even more heart wrenching. The reprise of 'Do You Hear The People Sing?', more tragic than triumphant here, deals the final blow to what is an exhilaratingly exhausting emotional experience.
Les Miserables, far from taking anything away from the phenomenon that is the stage production, manages to add the stories behind the songs with a level of detail you simply cannot get from the back of the Upper Circle in the theatre. They could never exist without each other, but I think each will continue to enrich the experience of the other in years to come.
Do you hear the people sing? I bet you a french flag and half a corset that you will, even if you’ve never been a part of Les Mis before. As a long time fanatic, I haven’t been able to get them out of my head for days.
Not that I've tried.
**** (and a half)
- - Jen