Tom Hooper attempts to breathe new life and perspective into Victor Hugo’s classic 1862 novel about the tumultuous era of nineteenth century France – a story which has been adapted so many times on both stage and screen it is hard to keep count. With some bold approaches in both format and design, and a star-studded cast attempting to tackle one of the most recognized and beloved songbooks in musical theater, the question is: does Hooper’s Les Mis achieve the greatness of its book, stage, and onscreen counterparts?
For those not familiar with the work, Les Mis centers on Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) a man imprisoned for nineteen years for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his relatives – and then, trying to escape that hellish imprisonment.
He is taken in by a kind bishop (veteran Les Mis actor Colm Wilkinson), and despite stealing from his holy benefactor, is awarded a chance at repentance.
Hooper’s direction of Les Misérables is fittingly epic and gorgeous, bringing nineteenth century France alive in the same way he did WWII-era England in his Oscar-winning film The King’s Speech.
Hooper also made the bold choice to have the beloved songbook by Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boublil sung live on set by the actors – as opposed to being recorded in a studio and added during post-production.
The cast of actors all carry the tunes pretty well, but there are some standouts (Jackman, Hathaway, Redmayne) who overshadow some of the other cast members (Crowe, Seyfried) who will likely have their singing critiqued to no end.
As stated, the cast is pretty wonderful, mixing big-name stars with stage performers – including a couple thespians who have tackled Les Mis onstage before. Jackman gives the best performance of his career as Jean Valjean; Eddie Redmayne (My Week With Marilyn) gives a breakout performance as Marius; Carter and Cohen put their comedic quirks to great use as the scene-stealing Thénardiers (some of the film’s best sequences involve their thieving antics); Hathaway once again surprises in her versatility and ability; and Les Mis vet Samantha Barks has played the role of Éponine enough to know how to distinguish the pivotal character.
At nearly three hours in runtime (and almost every line of dialogue in song) Les Mis is definitely NOT for those who are shaky on the prospect of epic musicals. Attentive listening is certainly required, as there several jumps in time, and the aging and re-introduction of several characters to keep note of.
Is it perfect? No. Is it worthy of the word “classic?” Perhaps in some circles of opinion.
But for my part (as an admitted causal fan of musicals) it is simply a very gorgeous, well-executed (but at times lukewarm) film.