“Look down, Look down!” intone the prisoners in the opening musical number of Les Misérables, a scene that begins underwater and moves to a crane shot of hundreds of inmates pulling ropes to haul an up-ended ship to dock.
The same phrase could describe the condescension many filmgoers and serious theatre buffs held for bloated eighties’ supermusicals (Cats, The Phantom of the Opera, Miss Saigon) that were turned into a global brand by English producer Cameron Mackintosh. Each musical features a story of love and sacrifice, a handful of memorable tear-jerking tunes and a ponderous stage trick: a falling chandelier; a descending helicopter; a revolving turntable stage.
Les Misérables (the one with the revolutionary turntable) is the most enduring and best pedigreed of the lot. In the past 150 years, Victor Hugo’s 1862 novel has spun into stage adaptations, radio dramas and more than 60 large and small-screen adaptations. Hugo’s novel provides the mine of source material: starting with a rattling good man-hunt tale (The Fugitive is one of its offshoots), it throws in dollops of pathos and a call to the barricades that at once thrills the jewellery-rattling 1-per-centers and inspires the passion of the Occupy Movement. As historian Mark Traugott wrote in The Insurgent Barricade, the actual 1832 Paris rebellion “would doubtless have been dismissed as just one more unsuccessful 19th-century insurrection” had Victor Hugo not chosen it as the setting for the climactic scene of his epic novel.
Adapting hit stage musicals for film is always a risky business, with far more getting it wrong than right (witness Evita, The Phantom of the Opera, Rent, Nine, etc.), so give Mackintosh (the producer here), director Tom Hooper (The King’s Speech) and the cast full credit for commitment to the cause. As filmed musicals go, it’s no Singin’ in the Rain, but then, you wouldn’t expect an elephant to do a dainty pirouette. The filmmakers know their audience (60 million have seen the stage show: It’s the Emotions, stupid.) The emphasis here is raw, demonstrative performances, using stars who are also strong actors (Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe and Anne Hathaway), and not fussing unduly about musical and cinematic finesse. It’s not subtle, but it works.
Even at a running time of close to two hours and 40 minutes, the musical has condensed Hugo’s five-volume narrative to a series of expressive punctuation points. A prisoner, Jean Valjean (Jackman) is freed after the fall of Napoleon, and, dodging parole, takes a new identity as a small-town mayor and factory owner. After encountering the prostitute Fantine (Hathaway), he adopts her daughter Cosette. Chased for years by the relentless policeman Javert (Russell Crowe), Valjean ends up, with the now adult Cosette (Amanda Seyfried), in Paris where they become enmeshed in the 1832 rebellion.
Hooper’s strategy is to suggest the monumental (a handful of overhead shots against massive 19th-century sets), but he also gives attention to the close-up intimacy of the performances. In its approach, Les Misérables is, essentially, the opposite of Glee, and not just in title. There’s no lip-synching here. LesMisérables’s numbers are all sung live to the camera, often in intense close-ups in long, single takes. With the exception of Peter Bogdanovich’s disastrous 1975 Cole Porter tribute, At Long Last Love, this approach hasn’t been used since the early sound era. You can see the performers struggle for control and, despite the artifice around them, it feels vital and immediate.
This technique, straight from the heart and tonsils, works most effectively on the musical’s famous number, I Dreamed a Dream, by Fantine, the factory worker turned prostitute to support her out-of-wedlock daughter. Emaciated and with her hair shorn, Hathaway is shown sobbing, and the cracks in her voice are less about conventional singing than delivering a deathbed soliloquy.
Her performance, though brief, dominates the film’s first half, though Jackman does more of the musical heavy-lifting. He’s a stage-musical veteran (The Boy from Oz), with a good vibrato-heavy baritone. Jackman’s occasional quavery strain at the upper registers of the song Bring Him Home won’t make anyone forget Colm Wilkinson, who inaugurated the 1985 English version of the musical, but then there’s no need to: Wilkinson has a cameo as the kindly bishop who turns Valjean’s life around. As with Hathaway, Jackman appears to have starved himself to emaciation so that in early scenes, he is all gaunt cheekbones, hollow eyes and open-throated singing.
Otherwise, it’s a mixed bag vocally. Seyfried (who sang in Mamma Mia!) as Cosette has a pretty, but light voice, though she too is challenged on the high notes. Eddie Redmayne as her lover, Marius, has a surprisingly full, sweet tenor on his big song, Empty Chairs at Empty Tables. Crowe’s somewhat thin baritone undermines the glowering conviction of his performance. But there’s one stage ringer here: The full-voiced Samantha Barks, British musical-contest winner and Les Miz stage singer, plays Éponine, the earthy, love-struck daughter of the sleazy innkeepers, who performs the popular tune On My Own.
Sacha Baron Cohen, as the venal and larcenous Thénardiers, along with a blowsy Helena Bonham Carter serve as comic relief. Although Baron Cohen’s wheedling vocals and random French accent are distracting, their boisterous nastiness is a break from the wall-to-wall despair and sacrifice. The busy camera work also occasionally gets in the way of the Paris-set final act, where the narrative sprouts a raft of subplots: a love triangle between Cosette, Marius and Éponine; Javert still chasing Valjean; and finally, the plucky little revolutionary urchin, Gavroche (Daniel Huttlestone), facing the military cannons to sing of hopes for the future.
You don’t have to go to the barricades for Hooper’s film to appreciate it for what it is – a productive experiment, an epic-scaled weepie, an exercise in sincere kitsch, and, perhaps too easily dismissed, a rare modern movie about the wretched poor, a traditional subject of interest at this time of year. As Hugo wrote in his novel’s preface, “… so long as ignorance and misery remain on earth, books like this cannot be useless.” Well, they do, and, in any form, Les Misérables isn’t.