Review: Les Misérables – Jackman jams as Jean Valjean
The new film adaptation of the Les Misérables musical stage play, which is based on the Victor Hugo novel from 1862, sinks its teeth into you from its epic opening sequence depicting a team of prisoners manually pulling a giant damaged sailing ship into a dry dock while singing the overture, “Look down.” This beginning scene alone is one of the most extraordinary moments I’ve ever seen at the movies and it sets the stage for the nearly 3-hours of gut-wrenching drama that follows.
Les Misérables (The Wretched, The Wretched Poor, The Poor Wretches – depending on your translation – either way these people are miserable) is Victor Hugo’s classic story of redemption set in 19th century France, circa 1815. This story has inspired filmmakers since the beginning of the medium and over the past one-hundred years there have been at least a dozen films based on the story of Jean Valjean.
This Tom Hooper (The King’s Speech) directed version of Les Mis begins with the French convict Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) being released from prison after serving nineteen years of hard labor and torture for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his sister’s starving children. The former prisoner can’t find work due to his ex-con status and he finds himself living on the street and struggling to survive until he is invited into a church for food and shelter.
Valjean repays the kindness the church bishop has shown him by stealing away in the middle of the night with a bag of the chapel’s silverware. He is caught by the local authorities, who return the thief and his bounty to the bishop, but the clergyman covers for Valjean by telling the constables that he gave the man the valuable items and that he forgot to take two silver candelabras as well.
The lawmen leave Valjean in the bishop’s hands and he challenges the thief to change his ways in return for his freedom and the bag of treasure. The holy man’s gesture has a profound effect on Valjean and he in fact does become an upstanding citizen, dedicated to helping those less fortunate than himself.
The story then jumps forward several years and Valjean has done well; he has changed his name and has also become the Mayor of Montreuil-sur-Mer, but in order to succeed he had to jump his parole, which has make him a target of Inspector Javert (Russell Crowe), whose mission in life is to stubbornly track down his former prisoner and bring him to justice.
Valjean becomes a man obsessed with redeeming himself and helps everyone from the employees of his factory, to a man pinned in the mud under his cart, to the dying prostitute Fantine (Anne Hathaway) and her lost daughter Cosette (Amanda Seyfried), to a band of young revolutionaries. At risk to his own well-being, at one point he even helps the determined Inspector Javert to escape from a certain death.
If you’ve seen and enjoyed the immensely popular Les Mis stage musical production of by Claude-Michel Schönberg, Herbert Kretzmer and Alain Boublil (which I unfortunately have not) then I can’t imagine you will be disappointed with this film version of the material. If you are new to Les Misérables, then know that there is very little unsung dialogue in this movie – it is not a dramatic film with sporadic musical numbers, it is a full-on musical drama.
Both the drama and the music are excellently delivered by this film’s stellar cast, which also includes Eddie Redmayne (My Week with Marilyn) as Marius and Helena Bonham Carter & Sacha Baron Cohen (Borat) as the thieving Thénardiers, who provide some desperately needed comedic relief in this very dark but ultimately uplifting story.
While the performances in Les Misérables are incredible across the board, it did take me a little while to get used to Jackman, Hathaway and especially Crowe, singing their every line. I was simply not used to seeing these fine actors in singing roles and it is slightly confounding at first; but for both Jackman and Hathaway, I believe that they boldly achieve the best performances of their careers in this film.
Anne Hathaway is only on screen for a short portion of this very long movie, but her part as the desperate Fantine, who gives absolutely everything she has to save her child, stands out as the highlight in this film that is brimming with memorable moments. She will certainly be a strong contender for an Academy Award when Oscar time comes around next year.
As I mentioned, this film runs for nearly three hours and it is not without a few minor lulls in the action. An intermission (just like watching it on stage) might have been nice, but that is no longer the way in this world of theaters trying to cram in as many screenings per day as possible. Les Misérables is certainly not dull, but you may want to skip that extra-large soda for this one and consider alternate means of caffeine intake.
I’m not a big fan of musicals per se (especially the dancing kind – which Les Misérables is mercifully not), but I really enjoyed this film. The music was fantastic, the classic narrative is still very timely, the performances were amazing, the cinematography was first-rate and the art/set design and costuming were all wonderfully believable. This is an experience that should make any film fan’s heart sing.