19th Century France comes alive in director Tom Hopper’s adaptation of the iconic musical, Les Misérables. Hugh Jackman plays Jean Valjean, who is released from nineteen years of incarcaration for stealing a loaf of bread. Russell Crowe is Javert, a policeman who tracks Valjean for years after he breaks parole and starts lifeover under a new identity. Promising Fantine (Anne Hathaway), one of his factory workers on her deathbed that he will care for her young daughter Cosette, Jean Valjean’s life becomes more complicated than he’d ever imagine.
First off, having only seen the play during my junior year of high school in lousy seats and blessed with my natural stupidity at sixteen, I never resonated with the show.
I was wrong. Les Misérables, although not without some problems, was a truly magical cinematic experience. Hopper’s take on the film was to embrace the theatricality of the original stage production and in that sense, he succeeds. The translation to film sometimes makes it feel stunted in it’s scope. Hopper had the actors sing live on set, which certainly adds to the experience, but at times, the film feels too “stagey,” often feeling the limitations of the stage, enhanced with CGI backgrounds. Another challenge personally, was getting used to the fact that there is virtually no spoken dialogue.
Performances throughout were spectacular and the film is completely absorbing. The score, as anyone who has heard it can attest, is memorable. The opening forty five minutes or so are a bit choppy and takes a while to truly get involved, but once you do, the film takes you away. Two of my minor quibbles feel as though they are the result of being faithful to the stage production. The first is an inconsistent tone. When Sascha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter appear, the scenes become almost cartoonish. On stage, these moments would likely lighten the heavy plot. In the film, they feel a little out of place. The second is the passage of time. When Jean Valjean sees Cosette again and tells her of her mother, Fantine, he dies, apparently of old age. Unfortunately it seems as if it’s only been months since he left Cosette. Poor old age makeup doesn’t help.
Despite whatever criticisms I have, Les Misérables is a gorgeous and amazing film that is one of 2012’s must sees. Highly recommended.