From the moment the theater darkens, the ocean begins to crash in the first scenes and the music begins, you are swept away into Victor Hugo’s world of 19th century France. Directed by Academy Award Winner Tom Hooper (The King’s Speech), the film pulls at you with stunning cinematography and characters coming to life from what we had previously only seen performed on stage.
As someone who feel in love with all thing Les Mis years ago, who can sing (all be it, poorly) the soundtrack in my sleep, I have been desperately waiting to see this film from the moment it was announced. I have seen the stage production more than a half dozen times and know well the story of the former convict Jean Valjean, his desire to become a man who does good in the world and his nemesis Javert. I wondered, I worried how it would translate.
I shouldn’t have.
Hugh Jackman as Jean Valjean is brilliant. He breathes soul into a character, making him fully three dimensional as a prisoner, a father and a survivor. I felt as he felt, I wept as he wept, I worried, I wandered, I fought as he did….fortunately for those around me, I did not sing as he did. Anne Hathaway, was remarkable as Fantine. Though her role is small when compared to Jean Valjean, she is pivotal in that her character, and her daughter Cossette mark Valjean’s climb from his dark past into being a force for all that is good in this time of turmoil in France. When she sang I Dream a Dream, there wasn’t a sound in the theatre…. collectively, we held our breathe.
I was stunned to find out that all songs in the movie were performed LIVE. No mouthing the words, no lip-syncing, and with the exception of the opening scene (you will understand why when you see it), there was no looping of sound. These actors wore ear pieces which allowed the music to play in their heads as they sang. This means, if they stumbled during a take, if they ran out of breath, if they lost the words, if their voices began to shake too terribly from the cold of being outside… they started over. And over again. Though many of the songs and voices were not on par with the powerful performances you typically see from the stage, they were, it seemed, more real.
The emotion you witness is raw. It is believable.
Beyond the extraordinary Hugh Jackman and Anne Hathaway, there were so many standouts: newcomer Eddie Redmayne as Marius was fresh, his singing pure and his love for Fantine so intense, you can can’t help but root for him. Samantha Barks, as Eponine’s performance of On My Own was phenomenal. Her voice was, it seemed to me to be the one most comparable to the caliber you see on stage.
Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen as the Innkeepers, the Thénardiers, repeatedly stole scenes. They were so ‘in character’ that Cohen is almost unrecognizable as himself.
The only character I found lacking was Russell Crowe as Javert. While his acting was on par, it was his singing that left me wanting. His voice was not capable of delivering the power needed to back on the emotion Javert felt as he relentlessly pursued Jean Valjean for years and years. As an actor, Crowe delivered a believable performance, but in this role, more depth was needed.
The film delivers a stunning display of emotion, heart and soul. From one scene to the next you are on the edge of your seat following Jean Valjean’s path to redemption… his quest to be a better man. While some scenes overflow with feeling, sucking the air from the theatre, others are quite graphic as only you would expect a revolution in 19th Century France to be. There are a few moments I found difficult to stomach, but I have no doubt they added to the depth of how I felt as a viewer.
Overall, Les Miséables was stunning. The life, the heart, and the soul breathed into each character tells the story in a way I had never experienced as a theatre-goer. I want to see it again.
Les Misérables opens in theaters on Christmas Day.