Based on the 1862 Victor Hugo novel, the musical stage adaptation of Les Misérables is nothing less than a phenomenon. Beginning as a French production in 1980 and translated to English for British audiences in 1985, the Tony Award-winning show has had two Broadway runs, several national tours and is known throughout the world for its soaring songs of despair and hope.
Set in 19th century France, Les Misérables (or, “the miserable,” so you know what you’re in for) concerns the tale of Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman), an angry prisoner finishing his nearly two-decade sentence for stealing a loaf of bread. Briefly acquainted with Javert (Russell Crowe) upon his release, Valjean wanders the French countryside, unable to earn meaningful employment due to his criminal record. Finally giving up and stealing silver from a kindly bishop who offered him food and shelter, Valjean is faced with the ultimate act of forgiveness when the bishop lies to the authorities and agrees the silver was a gift, as Valjean had falsely claimed. The bishop tells Valjean to use the silver – a chance at another life – to become a better man.
Years later, Valjean has taken the name “Monsieur Madeleine” and become a wealthy, respected member of the community. Distracted by Javert’s sudden appearance at his factory, Valjean does not properly mediate a dispute between his foreman and Fantine (Anne Hathaway), resulting in her being cast out onto the streets and forced into prostitution. The abandoned mother of little Cosette (Isabelle Allen), Fantine struggles to send funds to the nefarious Thénardiers (Sasha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter, on loan from a neighboring Tim Burton shoot) who “care” for Cosette, but only to serve their own greed. To atone for his lack of attention toward Fantine, Valjean promises to protect Cosette, while remaining on the run from Javert.
Any drama – especially that of the musical theater variety – tends to be somewhat … artificial. It has to be. And that’s OK. But this version Les Misérables fails in its attempt to walk the tightrope between the almost panicked emotion of musical theater and a more earnest reality. Much has been made of this production capturing the actors singing live, but director Tom Hooper, who won the Oscar in 2011 for The King’s Speech, dedicates too much time uncomfortably close to his stars, perhaps because of this technique. The canvas of 19th century France, with its class distinctions and grime (so, so much dirt) is easily painted with well-realized CGI, but then stuffed into static squares, with the occasional telltale wobble of a handheld cam. The powerful music, designed for open stages and spaces, is empty and hollow. Hathaway, for example, performs I Dreamed a Dream in one glorious, uninterrupted take but, for whatever reason, the emotion is awkwardly compacted.
The character of Valjean walks a path of righteousness greater than man’s law, and Jackman is perfection in the part. He was born to play this part and in this way. Of all the performers, he seems the most comfortable melding the processes of stage and film acting. Crowe, unfortunately, seems intimidated by the role of Javert. There are attempts to trace Valjean’s quest for a greater glory to Javert’s strict adherence to the law, but Crowe’s weak voice isn’t up to the task of establishing the inspector as menacing, or even threatening. Hathaway’s presence is somewhat brief, but shattering, as the role of Fantine is meant to be.
Les Misérables opens up some in the film’s second half, but even then in fits and starts. Valjean and Cosette (now grown into the angelic Amanda Seyfried) remain hidden, recognized only by the Thénardiers and their now-grown daughter Éponine (Samantha Barks). In the kind of moment that only seems to take place in fiction, Cosette instantly falls in love with Marius (Eddie Redmayne), a young revolutionary helping foment the June Rebellion. When Javert appears again, Valjean and Cosette seek shelter only to become embroiled in the fighting. Much melodrama commences.
There’s a lot right with this adaptation of Les Misérables: The production design is lush (when it can be seen), it moves at a comfortable clip despite its length, its cast is obviously sold on the idea, and the Red and Black number, but Les Misérables is an epic story told for generations and in several forms of stage and screen. The music is legendary, the brand iconic. Ultimately, after all this time and all of its success, it deserves better than this. C
Les Misérables, a Working Title Films and Relativity Media co-production distributed by Universal Pictures, is 160 minutes long and rated PG-13.