Film Review: Les Misérables

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Posted January 17, 2013 by Matthew Smith in Les Misérables

There have been countless screen adaptations of Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables released over the last hundred years, but nothing has or will ever come close to the earth-shattering magnificence of Tom Hooper’s resounding triumph of a motion picture.

From the opening few seconds, it is resonant that the experience to follow is set to be epic in scale and grand in delivery. The film arrives with pace as Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) performs one last task of physical exertion on his final day as a slave – hauling a ship into port to the tune of ‘Look Down’, one of the film’s more pounding numbers. Overseen by the ruthless lawman Javert (Russell Crowe), this is the just the first of many intense encounters between the two, and is indicative of just what to expect from their strained relationship.

In this spectacular opening sequence, both male leads are given their first opportunities to flex their vocal muscles. Jackman wins out (being the song and dance man that he is), but there is certainly not enough credit being given to Russell Crowe. Already, jokes are being made at his expense when referencing the film. And sure, his melodic talents are limited, but partly thanks to the fact that Jackman, Anne Hathaway, Eddie Redmayne and Amanda Seyfried are nothing short of astonishing as far as their musical performances are concerned. The role of Javert though, for obvious reasons dictated by his character, is not one of sensitivity and candor in the first place, so the fact that his performances over the course of the film are slightly more cagey could easily be viewed as representative of the role rather than any sort of under par delivery on Crowe’s part. On the dramatic front, he is as good as ever, challenging himself in a new way at this point in his career and pulling it off without a hitch.

Dominating proceedings though, is Hugh Jackman. Sensational as the troubled thief-turned-mayor, he is a thorough force in almost every scene, breathing new life into such a beloved character. Though the out and out lead, he is in the midst of an alarmingly gifted cast. And still, Les Misérables could easily be described as Jackman’s film…were it not for the brief brilliance of Anne Hathaway.

As if it wasn’t already an emotional saga, Anne Hathaway is the heart and soul of the film. Though only appearing for a small portion of it as the tortured Fantine, it is more than enough time for Hathaway to warrant the Supporting Actress Oscar that she is going to win next month. Her performance is as brutally beautiful as anything seen on screen this year, and certainly one of the stronger (if not the strongest) outings ever in a musical. There is nothing camp or schmaltzy, nothing sugary or compromised. She is sheer emotion, and her jaw-dropping performance of ‘I Dreamed A Dream’ is the heart-wrenching spine of the film; the reason for the next ten years of Valjean’s life if not his only true love. Hathaway will always have her critics, but here’s hoping that her recent role selectivity will continue, and that those she has recently won over will be able to stand firm in their decision to switch camps.

Amongst the maturity of performances like Jackman’s and Hathaway’s, there is an impressive injection of youth to stand confidently alongside them. Eddie Redmayne and Amanda Seyfried enter the fold late on, but are given more than a few chances to make their mark, succeeding admirably. As the young lovers Marius and Cosette, their glorious performance (with the help of Samantha Barks’ Eponine) of ‘In My Life/A Heart Full Of Love’ anchors the second half of the film. And though they share only a small handful of scenes, their chemistry is undeniable.

The only performer to make the transition from stage to screen, Samantha Barks handles Eponine with a respectful delicacy to a role that she is familiar with. Having had experience belting it out in the West End, she adapts to the environment, and in her quietest, rain-soaked final moments gives even Hathaway a run for her money. It’s Les Mis, so everyone gets their tearful closeup solo, but while everyone delivers, it’s the class and experience of Barks and Hathaway that seal the deal as far as the film’s success goes.

All the credit, and all the plaudits though, should be pointed in the direction of Tom Hooper. The decision to film live singing was a massive gamble, but in the end it is what makes the film such a refreshing take on the classic tale. The familiar songs have never sounded so raw and so new; a fact that is simply down to the fact that they have never been performed in such a way. The experimental method allows for bellowing choruses that fill the Paris streets with sound, while just as easily for the sharing of Fantine’s tears as she concedes what her life has become. It was a risk that paid off in the form of  an unprecedented achievement, making Hooper’s Les Misérables the most remarkable of silver screen musicals, with underplayed comic relief in the form of Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter if only to lighten the mood between grief-stricken ballads.

Lengthy though it may be, with some sections more striking than others, being sung-through means you have no choice but to hang on every word. An extraordinary cast means this is in no way a chore, but by the end of a film that is so spectacular in scale and so rich in class, some may find that all the excellence has left them equally as worn out as eager to take it in a second time.





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About the Author

Matthew Smith
Matthew Smith

A bi-product of both the USA and the UK, Matthew has been a film-obsessive since the summer of 1993. He claims that in 2009, he saw a total of 109 films at the cinema. Since 2009, he has been writing for NME film critic Owen Nicholls, and after exploring the intricacies of film analysis, began a BA Hons in Film and Moving Image Production in 2011 at the ripe old age of 25. His favourite film is The Big Lebowski, and his favourite director is Alexander Payne.


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