Those who have seen the long-lived and well-loved musical can agree that putting Les Misérables onto the screen, especially when it involves such ambitious goals as retaining the sung-through structure of the show — and, more still, recording all the singing live — would be a challenging endeavor. With all the anticipation revolving around the film, I was anxious as I stepped into the theater, not knowing what to expect. I left, however, with tears in my eyes and the sense that I just witnessed something great.
Following the success of his Oscar-winning The King’s Speech, British director Tom Hooper has taken many risks with Les Misérables — the biggest one being his choice to record the actors’ singing on set every take instead of having them lip-sync to prerecorded tracks. Perhaps what makes the film most memorable and moving was the fact that there were real, even raw, emotions to the singing, something that could only be achieved through live performances. I would even say that the film exceeds the traditional musical in its emotional power. The original score of the musical, mostly followed in the film version, is arousing enough, but the film had great actors like Hugh Jackman and Anne Hathaway at its disposal. These actors not only execute the music beautifully but also amplify it with dramatic performances that only the cinema could allow, with close-up shots of the actors’ pained, distorted expressions.
Raw, indeed, is a word that resonates throughout the film, reflected not just in the emotional vocal performance but the visuals of the cast as well, who take on bold, unadorned appearances in the film. Anne Hathaway’s appearance as a prostitute, after losing weight and having her auburn locks shaved off, was by no means elegant; Hugh Jackman as a wild-eyed, bearded convict in tattered clothes was hardly flattering either. Even Eddie Redmayne’s Marius, the dashing, charming revolutionary youth, was shown to be freckled and imperfect in close-ups. This approach does give a heightened sense of reality to the film and has a startling, yet stirring, effect on the audience.
The cast must be lauded for the success of the methods adopted. Overall, I was surprised by the consistently high quality of both the dramatic and vocal performances of the cast; while the cast is indeed full of big stars, not many — apart from perhaps the Tony-Award-hosting Jackman — were known to be musically inclined. Hathaway’s emotional performance of “I Dreamed a Dream” was one of the most powerful moments in the film, showcasing both her solid vocal talent and incredible acting. Amanda Seyfried’s Cosette was inherently less emotional and complex, but her vocals, sweet and pure, were impeccable for the character. Redmayne, a relatively unknown star, gave an impressive performance among the bigger names, especially in the sorrowful “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables,” where his longing gazes, along with his full, woeful singing, are sure to draw tears.
It is impossible, however, for a film like this to be perfect. Even though I find it remarkably well made,Misérables does fall short at some points. Russell Crowe’s acting seems too plain and his singing too restrained to be a convincing Javert, and he also fails to deliver the complexities and underlying struggles of Javert on the notion of justice, which is what makes the conflict between Javert and JeanValjean so effective. On the other hand, Jackman’s performance is somewhat debatable. While his past performances have proven his ability to sing, Jackman seems to value emotionality over, and sometimes at the expense of, musicality in the film. Many of his pieces are carried through in a mixture between singing and speaking, which make the songs monotonous.
But, all in all, Les Misérables is indeed a magnificent work. More than a mere work of cinematic art, the film also does a good job in capturing the themes originally embedded in Victor Hugo’s original novel — like the redeeming quality of humanity, compassion and love — while throwing in sufficient light-hearted touches that keep it from becoming too wearisome. The Thinardier couple, played by Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen, always manages to steal the show and draw laughter, and the believable romance between Cosette and Marius brings joy and satisfaction to an otherwise heavy-hearted film.
Hooper’s Les Misérables is entertainment through and through, heart-warming and heart-wrenching at the same time and definitely a must-watch during the holiday season. Be ready for an emotional cinematic experience that would leave you teary-eyed in the end. One heart-felt piece of advice: Bring tissues.