When Victor Hugo’s novel Les Misérables first came to London as a musical in 1985 it was criticised as reducing a French classic in a shallow attempt to popularise the story. Yet twenty-seven years later the story has been retold once again, and in film. This time the critics don’t seem to mind so much. It is a stunning adaptation that reverberates all the passion of the story in a vivid and capturing way.
The film has become globally acknowledged, with many awards already hanging from the mantel piece and with others pending. As to be expected in a musical, the quality of the songs were notably marked. Tom Hooper’s initiative to have actors sing live on set gives passion and immediacy to the performances. On the first Friday after the film’s release, I stood in a queue of semi-drunk twenty year olds who were singing songs from the film as they waited to get into a club. This in itself, is a testament of the popularity of the show’s famous music.
It fits well with the stories Revolutionary ethos that it can be accessed by such a large population (and I’m sure Hugo would approve of the young-intoxicated choir). It commits, as the title suggests, to telling the tale of the wretched in Parisian society. These are the prostitutes, the neglected orphans, the social decrepit and all of whom are starving. Amongst them is the recently released ex-convict Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) who finds redemption at the hands of Bishop Myriel. Although he is viciously pursued by Inspector Javert (Russel Crowe) who is a pedantic upholder of the law, he is able to command a Christian lifestyle: he commits to alleviating the suffering of the poor. Of the people he helps, the most touching is the case of ex-employee Fantine (Anne Hatheway) whose daughter, Cosette, he adopts. The treachery of Fantine’s situation is given relief through Cosette’s happiness.
Fanitine’s degradation is one of the most powerful scenes in the film as Hatheway physically and mentally dismantles herself on screen. Her powerful solo of I Dreamed a Dream is saturated in her tears in the depths of a rusty bath tub. It is these moments of intimacy where the film adaptation comes into its own and provides justification of its form, as close-ups are able to sensitively capture the character’s vulnerability. Hatheway’s performance throughout confirms her place as one of our generations greatest Actresses.
Although the film is bleak and mournfully depressing, comic relief comes in abrupt intervals led by Thénardier (Sacha Baron Cohen) and his bawdy wife (Helena Bonham Carter), who play their part well as the soulless Fagin figures. They frequently aggravate Valejan’s position and their money making schemes mean that they pop up almost anywhere (even in the sewers).
Jackman’s performance is formidable and he carries the film with his engaging solos and earnest actions, just as easily as if it were a flagpole. Crowe likewise has been heralded with praise for his role as the Inspector, yet sometimes he seemed a little too sincere and too serious, which consequently sacrificed some of his believability. Perhaps his past heroic and uber masculine roles make it hard to tune into his villainous and touching tone. Yet his sincerity drips off the screen and makes him a commanding watch, whether or not you’re constantly picturing him battling lions in the Colosseum.
This is a beautiful film, that is able to capture and destill the sentiments of the novel. The stories reluctance to create obvious contrasts means that it does not polarise good and bad, right and wrong, innocent and guilty. Consequently it yields rich and complex characters that are distinguishably human. It is a story about people and the people that are in the film are world class, so accordingly it follows suit.