For this writer, seeing the film version of Les Miserables was a highly anticipated moment. I had read Victor Hugo's original novel, and also appeared as Enjolras (the leader of the student revolutionaries) on the high school stage. So to some extent, I had been very familiar with the landmark score of the piece - "I Dreamed a Dream," "On My Own" and "Bring Him Home" are all classics. So could the film do justice for die-hard Les Mis fans, and for those who were likely not to be dragged into seeing a musical - even as epic and powerful as this one?
The answer is a resounding yes - even with a few blemishes left in its wake.
Tom Hooper (The King's Speech) enlisted an extraordinary cast, led by Hugh Jackman as Jean Valjean, a convict who breaks his parole to turn his life around in 19th century France. Jackman is joined by Oscar winner Russell Crowe as Javert, the determined inspector driven to bring Valjean back to justice. Along the way, Valjean encounters Fantine (Anne Hathaway), a factory girl whose plight leads Valjean to her daughter - being cared for (haphazardly) by a greedy inkeeping couple (Sacha Baron Cohen & Helena Bonham Carter). Years later, that daughter grows up to be Cosette (Amanda Seyfried) who falls for student Marius Pontmercy (Eddie Redmayne) - even as he and fellow student Enjolras (Aaron Tveit) prepare for revolution against the government. Then there's the couple's daughter Eponine (British stage star Samantha Barks, reprising her 25th anniversary performance role from 2010), who has feelings for Marius - but risks her life to help him be with Cosette.
Hooper takes an unorthodox cinematic approach to the powerful drama sculpted by the French duo of Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schonberg, with English translations by noted lyricist Herbert Kretzmer. The director has the actors singing live, with the orchestra touches added in post-production - allowing some of the songs to feel more like interior monologues to explore the characters' emotions. It certainly helps for Valjean's harrowing first-act soliloquy, and even in a nearly one-take performance of Fantine's immortal "I Dreamed a Dream." Hooper and cinematographer Danny Cohen display a striking visual beauty throughout the film, from the hopelessness of the streets to the battle-stained roads of revolution - and even in the beautiful candlelight of the film's last scenes.
Yet just like any other Broadway musical adaptation, Les Mis is not immune from the cutting room floor. Certain songs are MIA, with other songs getting shortened for time - even for a film that ultimately runs over 2 1/2 hours. Some of the songs also get moved around when compared to the stage version - a move that even affected the 1961 Oscar winner West Side Story (when Act Two's "Gee, Officer Krupke" was moved to the film's first half). There's also the inclusion of a new transition song for Valjean called "Suddenly," in which he addresses his hopes for Cosette. Screenwriter William Nicholson (Oscar nominee for the 1993 Anthony Hopkins-Debra Winger drama Shadowlands) also adds bits and pieces of dialogue to make the film a bit more accessible, to keep those allergic to sung-through musicals a bit more at ease. All-out Les Mis lovers will be a bit disappointed with the lack of a complete film experience, but for those who savor the greatest hits of the show, there should be no issue (save for a highlights CD, instead of the full score's release).
The casting is beyond inspired, with Hugh Jackman delivering a career-defining tour de force as Jean Valjean. He is nearly unrecognizable at the film's beginnings, all bald and bearded as the convict is given his release - and the beginning of his possible repentance. His performance of the first-act soliloquy is a sobering revelation, and he makes Valjean a character worth rooting for. While Les Mis fans will likely gripe over some aspects of his performance (probably preferring original Valjean Colm Wilkinson, who does show up here as the Bishop of Digne), Jackman provides much of the film's weight - and delivers a role of great range with heartfelt tenderness and dogged determination.
Russell Crowe is a good physical Javert, though his singing voice left a bit to be desired - and at times felt way too theatrical for him (especially considering his musical side in the band 30 Odd Foot of Grunts). His presence is menacing throughout, letting the audience know his determination to take Valjean down, no matter what the cost to himself or anyone else. Even though Jackman outsings him, Crowe does get some great visuals from Hooper for his big solos, especially on "Stars."
Eddie Redmayne has received acclaim for his work on stage (John Logan's Tony-winning Red) and screen (My Week with Marilyn), and he brings a matinee idol quality to his work as Marius. His performance as the lovestruck student is a bit mixed, though, with his singing sometimes going a bit off - he even gets outclassed at times by Next to Normal star Aaron Tveit as the leading revolutionary Enjolras (he shines whenever he shows on screen, with a defiant final scene for his character as a memorable highlight). Yet Redmayne redeems himself with the harrowing "Empty Chairs at Empty Tables," where Hooper's unorthodox approach works with the actor exploring Marius' deep emotions on what was lost - for him and for his friends.
Fellow Brit Samantha Barks shines in her major film debut as Eponine, and she brings her West End approaches to the role (especially considering her experience with the role before cameras rolled). She also delivers a rain-soaked powerful rendition of the standard "On My Own," and also provides a great counter to the Marius and Cosette love story. As for the other girl, Amanda Seyfried had a bit too much vibrato to her voice, which proved to be quite distracting at times - somehow leaving her beauty as her only good quality.
Kudos do have to go to two young actors who shined in small but crucial roles to the story. Isabelle Allen starred as the young Cosette - and she delivers a beautiful heart-breaking "Castle on a Cloud," when the audience is first introduced to Fantine's struggling daughter. Daniel Huddlestone also charms as the very young revolutionary Gavroche, who provides a never-say-die attitude throughout the students' battles - and while he was humorous (especially when he sings), he was definitely helpful to those who needed him.
Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter provide the film's needed comic relief as the conniving Thenardiers, the innkeeping couple who will do anything to be rich - regardless of anyone's personal possessions. The two have a riot on their hands with "Master of the House," but they also hold their own against Jackman in the scene afterwards, when Valjean prepares to take Cosette away - especially when they have a hard time saying her name. They return here and there throughout the film, but they also have a grand final scene of their own.
Yet for all of the above-mentioned, the one actor who shined the brightest and best throughout the entire film is easily Anne Hathaway. Her work as Fantine is a revelation, and it all happens on a slow downward spiral. One minute she slaves away trying to provide for her daughter, the next jealous co-workers and a flirting foreman get her thrown out. Soon she resorts to risky personal measures to keep her daughter safe, all the while knowing those moves will damage her. Hathaway leaves it all on the screen, from letting her long hair be reduced to a near-bald cut, to getting her physical presence to a near waif-like state. She also delivers the greatest musical scene of the whole film, that being the immortal "I Dreamed a Dream." Patti LuPone and Susan Boyle had their celebrated renditions, but Hathaway makes the audience feel Fantine's plight - from the regret of her early days to the rueful resignation of where her life is now. She steals the film, even when her presence is not there.
While some of Hooper's ideas and some of the actors could have worked out better, there has to be little doubt about what Les Miserables was looking to accomplish. The director and his cast looked to tell a raw, deeply moving, richly-textured tale of one man's climb to personal salvation, all while different revolutions - of love, of God, and of power - all take place in a critical time in the history of France. Musical theater fans will salivate over the epic journey, while others who don't see the genre as a favorite will likely thumb their noses and move on. Yet for those who have never been initiated in the world of Les Mis, be prepared for an emotionally sonic blast of romance, war, conflict and redemption. In an age where the epic movie musical is supposed to be long gone, Les Miserables resurrects it - flaws and all - and cinema is all the better for it. It moves, it rages, it lifts and it amazes all at once. Not many films can do that - but Les Miserables does, and in a big way.