I’m “biast” (pro): love love love the stage musical
I’m “biast” (con): nothing
I have not read the source material
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)
There is no possible way I can even pretend to be objective about this movie. Not that I ever do so, but this is an especially bad case of me being hopelessly — and as far as I’m concerned — wonderfully biased. I love Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boublil’s rock opera. (Don’t hate me: I haven’t read Victor Hugo’s book. But I did just download it to my Kindle and will get to it soon.) And by love I mean adore. I’ve memorized it. I can sing it all by heart. It speaks to me in ways that I don’t fully understand — but, you know: love honor duty tragedy sacrifice comedy drama despair hope romance revolution, all expressed through song. Les Mis kinda has it all.
And now Tom Hooper’s big-screen adaptation of it is here. He’s made some really great movies that I’ve really loved — The Damned United, The King’s Speech — but they’ve been on a much smaller scale than this bold brash audacious unexpected prism on a classic novel. Could he pull it off? Could any filmmaker make the Les Mis movie of my dreams?
Hooper has done it. I’m so very very happy. There’s an alchemy in his Les Misérables that brings together the best of screen and the best of stage: songs of heartbreak — and oh boy are there a lot of those in this tale of multifarious woe — that on stage are belted out so that even the cheap seats feel the soaring pain here are all the more crushing for their intimacy. Anne Hathaway’s (The Dark Knight Rises, One Day) Fantine, intensely unlucky in love and life, trembles with soul-deep anguish as she chokes out her ballad of forlorn regret, “I Dreamed a Dream.” Hugh Jackman’s (Rise of the Guardians, Real Steel) fugitive Jean Valjean can barely croak out his astonishment at a kindness offered him while he’s on the run. Russell Crowe’s (The Next Three Days, Robin Hood) policeman Javert growls with proud self-righteousness as he vows never to stop hunting down Valjean in “Stars.” There’s little of the sweeping, epic camerawork we’ve come to expect from movie musicals, nothing that attempts to convey grandness or a larger-than-life heightening of emotions. The emotions don’t need to be artificially inflated, they’re that raw and real, the camera staying close on powerfully expressive faces sometimes to the point that it feels almost obscene, like we should be looking away from such personal moments, not witnessing them. Everything here is very much the same size as life, presented with bald brutality. Even the performances are raw and real: the cast sang live on the set — they weren’t lip-synching to songs recorded in a studio in pristine conditions. They were in the moment, and the moment is almost always one of suffering.
For this is a tale, for those who aren’t familiar with the novel or the show, of a man, Valjean, who jumps parole in early-19th-century France for the chance to make the kind of honest new life for himself that a man known as a convicted felon could not. (His crime: He stole a loaf of bread to feed his starving sister and her child. And spent 19 years doing hard labor for it.) He lives in constant fear of being discovered, and though he often agonizes over whether turning himself in would be the right thing to do, he keeps finding selfless reasons not to… as when he adopts the child, Cosette (played as a little girl by Isabelle Allen), of Fantine, a former worker in the factory he owns. After years more hiding in Paris, Cosette (played as an adult by Amanda Seyfried: Gone, In Time) falls in love with a young activist, Marius (Eddie Redmayne: The Other Boleyn Girl, Elizabeth: The Golden Age), on the eve of a new uprising to complete the unfinished work of the French Revolution a generation earlier. Even just that barest of explanations of the plot is rife with opportunities for tragedy and grief, and there’s lots more. Even the comedy — which comes in the form of crude, bawdy innkeepers the Thénardiers (perfectly cast Sacha Baron Cohen [Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted, The Dictator] and Helena Bonham Carter [Great Expectations, Dark Shadows]) — is bitter and angry.
It’s almost impossible for me to even venture a guess as to whether those who don’t love the stage show will appreciate this. But I think they might. The usual objections nonfans of musicals have about characters bursting into song inappropriately don’t seem to apply here: the key songs are more like monologues, the revelations of innermost feelings in private moments, not the typical song-and-dance number as an explosion of public joy. There’s nothing fantastical or escapist here — this is nothing like the old-fashioned Hollywood musicals of old. Thematically, too, Les Mis feels fresh and modern. Huge chasms of social and economic inequality, a corrupt and unfair judicial system, rampant cultural desperation… it feels like many of us are living lives today not very different from Valjean’s, Fantine’s, even the Thénardiers. Alas for us that we’re still fighting the same battles.