Back in third or fourth grade, I had the chance to see Les Miserables on Broadway, a musical people continually hail as one of the best to ever hit the theater circuit. Being a young male child, I remember hating it and trying to fall asleep because it never ended. Sixteen years later, the show is finally being respectfully adapted for the big screen (again) and I figured since I’ve matured I’d give this show another shot. I’ll be honest, I’m not a big fan of musicals unless they’re comedies like South Park, The Producers or Team America, so Tom Hooper’s Les Miserables was certainly going to have to be something special if it wanted to win me over.
Set in 19th Century France, Les Miserables follows the life of convict Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) who, after breaking parole, has been on the run and living life under an alias for years. Hunted by the emotionally hardened Police Inspector Javert (Russell Crowe), Jean Valjean’s past eventually catches up with him but not before he meets Fantine (Anne Hathaway), a former employee of his whose life has been shattered and her daughter’s well being threatened. Upon her request, Jean Valjean agrees to take care of Fantine’s daughter, Cosette (Isabelle Allen/Amanda Seyfried), and together the duo attempt to live a good life of anonymity until love enters Cosette’s world and Javert discovers Valjean’s whereabouts.
If anyone needed one reason to see this film before hearing anything about it, it’s that Hugh Jackman was playing Jean Valjean. Jackman is a natural entertainer and has a pretty good singing voice as well. For a guy that loves Broadway as much as he does, you know this is likely his dream role and that he would do everything in his power to make sure it’s respectful to the Broadway show. Does he deliver? Absolutely! Born for this role, Jackman carries the film on his back, through his booming performance in the opening act as an unrecognizable prisoner singing “work song,” to a touching duet with Hathaway, and a tormented performance come the end. He and Crowe are the only constants in a film that is every changing and when it comes time for the movie to end, he is able to bring tears to the faces of those who are not afraid to let it rain in public.
Hathaway was the one person who I was most skeptical about going into the film, her shaky vocals at the Oscar’s didn’t cut it for me. Then the film started and Hathaway was introduced to us as Fantine, a mother desperately trying to make money to have her child cared for. Having remembered almost nothing about the musical itself, I could feel the film building up to something epic and that was when Anne started singing “I Dream a Dream.” Not only did Hathaway kill it, but she did so in a powerful and extremely emotional way. She blew me out of the water, hitting every note with a raw and saddening determination that was captured through a simple, head-on shot, preventing anything from distracting us from her magnetic delivery.
I was also impressed with Samantha Barks, who did a wonderful job of playing an emotionally torn Epoline, a character that is strong willed yet clearly vulnerable as well. The same goes for Eddie Redmayne, who I thought was much better in Les Miz as Marius than in My Week with Marilyn. Though, if we want to talk about scene stealers look no further than Thénardier and Madame Thénardier played by Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter respectively. The two had wonderful chemistry, hilariously choreographed musical numbers and a comical yet depressing presence that no one else could match. For me, they made this musical worth the watch.
I did have a couple of issues with the film, namely the runtime and Russell Crowe. Like the actual musical, the film is very long, coming in at approximately 157 minutes which is a good 50 minutes longer than I can handle (for a musical). There’s a caveat to this because even though I wanted the film to wrap itself up, Broadway fans will feel the exact opposite, especially since every song was performed (plus one more).
As for Russell Crowe, I thought he was good but he just didn’t have the vocal range you’d expect and need from a character like Javert. Rather than being thunderous and powerful, he was a bit more reserved so that he could hit all the notes without going out of key, or so it seemed. [SPOILER] For fans of the musical he was also a little too soft for a character that’s never supposed to show his softer side until the very end, [END SPOILER] though it didn’t bother me.
The cool part about watching Les Miserables in a theater is that it feels like you’re watching a Broadway show with extremely high production values. I say this because the audience was completely engrossed in the film, especially the theater lovers. Most of the audience actually clapped after a few of the songs ended, clearly impressed by what they had just heard from the cast mostly comprised of people who don’t sing for a living, while others sang along and then, during emotional scenes, you could hear the whimpers of people crying. It was an eventful showing for a screening where people tend to control their emotions.
Even if I haven’t seen the musical in about 16 years, there are still a few songs that I began to remember as the film progressed, I even found myself singing along in my head while others couldn’t resist the temptation to sing out loud. What I’m trying to say is that even if I don’t like musicals it’s hard to resist the impressive quality of Les Miserables as it is stacked with quality performances and a very compelling love story about one man trying to do good with his life.
Non-musical Fan Rating: A solid musical built on great performances but much too long to bear (7/10)
Musical Rating: If you loved the show you’ll love this adaptation too (8.7/10)