14 January 2013


After grabbing the 2011 Academy Award for Best Director from under David Fincher's nose, Tom Hooper hasn't simply decided to rest on his laurels. His new project, following the Oscar-winning success of The King's Speech is Les Misérables, a hugely ambitious adaptation of Cameron Mackintosh's stage musical of Victor Hugo's novel. Sure enough, it's been nominated for several more Oscars, but that's as much as we need to say about awards bunkum.

The film's hero is Jean Valjean, a convict who is released on parole after almost two decades in servitude, into a world that will never forgive or forget his minor crime. Not least amongst his troubles is Inspector Javert, a dogged lawman who vows to pursue Valjean for as long as he lives. After a priest offers him unexpected kindness, Valjean resolves to become a new man, pledging to help and protect the impoverished Fantine and her daughter Cosette, and in turn, putting himself on a collision course with Javert.

As with my review of Texas Chainsaw, I should disclose that I've never happened across this story before, in any medium, and so perhaps it's all the better for this film that it's the first time I've seen it. Having complained about Mike Newell's recent version of Great Expectations for being samey, that version of that story is entirely serviceable to someone who's never read the book or seen any of the films- it's just not the best version. In this case, I still haven't even got around to reading Hugo's novel, but given the backward-arse tendency that I've noted before, of reading the source after watching adaptations, I'm glad this was the first version I got.

As with his previous films, The King's Speech and The Damned United, Hooper's real talent as a director is in making small and intimate scenes feel big and important and cinematic. Even though this is a bigger story than the personal problems of George VI, or Brian Clough's disastrous season at Leeds United, it seems to take place in a small world. In keeping with the themes, characters keep meeting up no matter how far apart they may travel, and small gestures have consequences later on. That's the only measure by which I would call it small, because Hooper's response to bigger material is to go absolutely humungous with it.

This is epic filmmaking, on a scale seldom seen in an age where most blockbusters take "bigger" to mean either "louder" or "moodier". Les Misérables is moody, certainly, but its introspection and angst is well and truly earned. In Jean Valjean, we have a protagonist who's almost constantly on the horns of one morla dilemma or another, and Hugh Jackman fully deserves the plaudits he's been getting for bringing that to life. Despite his history on stage, this is his first screen musical, and he's better than he's ever been as a man of tremendous physical strength, who trembles with the effort of upholding his moral obligations, but does not sway.

Elsewhere, Anne Hathaway, whose certain Oscar win seemed to be cemented from the instant that the first trailer was released, has a relatively small but crucial role to play, and she knocks it into the stratosphere. She benefits most from the creative decision to have all of the actors sing "live" on set, rather than dubbing the vocals in during post-production- there's a reason her rendition of "I Dreamed A Dream" forms the basis of most of the trailers, and even if you think that's prepared you, your eyes are at least going to be sweaty by the time that moment arrives in the film.

The recording of vocals on set is less fortunate for Russell Crowe, but the rigid Javert does benefit from his slightly uncomfortable renditions. Though not suited to the Broadway singing style, Crowe is well cast as the fanatical inspector, and while I don't know if this is true of all adaptations, he typifies what I liked about the story- even though Javert is set up as Valjean's nemesis throughout, the ultimate conflict that he must face, as with all the characters, is between himself and an idea of God. There are plenty of scenes where characters pray and appeal to a higher power for an end to their misery. Largely, God seems to be away doing something else, but the inner conflict comes to an emotionally satisfying conclusion.

However, if I had to point out the peak of the film, it would probably be somewhere in the first act. As long as the film is, it only takes a dip with the introduction of revolutionary student Marius. Eddie Redmayne does a nice job of playing him, but here, in a film where pretty much everybody is having a tough time, is a character who seems to get everything handed to him. When Marius and his budding romance with Amanda Seyfried's Cosette takes centre-stage, I became less invested. The only way in that I found was through the unrequited love that Eponine has for Marius- stage actress Samantha Barks is one of the best things about the film- and that's rooting in the opposite direction of what was intended. Still, Valjean's troubles are compelling enough as an anchor that the film isn't set completely adrift.

Les Misérables grabbed me from the first trailer, with its entirely understandable desire to show off Anne Hathaway's performance, but it kept me going through a hefty running time with its intimately epic scale and the emotional investment that it engenders. There's far too much turmoil for it to be considered a feel-good film, but the story is so good, I actually stopped noticing that they were singing it. There's barely a word spoken in the film, but the operatic tone is in keeping with the powerhouse performances and emotional scale. Not the best of the year, but a worthy contender, and an impressive achievement.

Les Misérables is now showing in cinemas nationwide.
If you've seen
Les Misérables, why not share your comments below?
I'm Mark the mad prophet, and until next time, don't watch anything I wouldn't watch.

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