Victor Hugo’s enormous novel about oppression, valiant human struggle and redemption in 19th century France finds zealous cinematic interpretation in Les Misérables, with Australian greats Russell Crowe and Hugh Jackman in lead roles.
Director Tom Hooper’s scale for this musical is huge. The decibels rise many notches above his last Oscar-sweeping film The King’s Speech (2010)—in treatment, Les Misérables is the antithesis of The King’s Speech despite being punctuated by intimate close-ups of singing actors, quivering lips and streaming tears filling up every inch of the screen, if not leaping out of the frame. The film has some heartbreaking scenes, visualized and rendered in beautiful detail. Anne Hathaway, who plays Fantine, a factory worker who is forced into prostitution, and who becomes a martyr, gives the role her all. She has the first lengthy sequence in the film with the song I Dreamed a Dream.
Beginning in 1815 and ending in 1832, just before the June Rebellion—also known as the Paris Uprising, it was an unsuccessful anti-monarchist movement led by students—Les Misérables has brilliant smaller performances by the ever-entertaining Helena Bonham Carter, by Hathaway in the meaty supporting role and by Eddie Redmayne and Amanda Seyfried. Jackman and Crowe are somehow undone by the bombast and pomposity which their roles require, in keeping with the tone of the film. Rarely do these characters have a moment of rest for us to really look at them or listen to them.
Jean Valjean (Jackman), a former convict, is pursued by inspector Javert (Crowe) years after he is freed from imprisonment. Valjean is a different man when Javert meets him the second time—the mayor of Montreuil and a factory owner. Javert can only suspect, based on a feat only Valjean could have performed because of his strong arms, it is the same man he freed years ago. The second strand of the story involves the daughter of Fantine, Cosette (Seyfried), who is the object of love of a revolutionary, Marius (Redmayne). Fantine worked in Valjean’s factory; it was Valjean who rescued Cosette from the misery in which her mother lost her life.
Les Misérables is long, big and heaving. Unfortunately, the passion and the agony replete in Hugo’s story are largely literal in Hooper’s execution. The lyrics (by Alain Boublil and Herbert Kretzmer) and music (Claude-Michel Schönberg) have intermittent sparks. But overall, at a running length of 2 hours and 40 minutes, it gets exhausting. Hathaway deserves the Golden Globe for her supporting role, but the film has little to offer as entertainment besides its lofty ambition. You don’t come away purged or singed, just quite tired.
Les Misérables released in theatres on Friday