EPIC! That is the word that jumped into my mind less than a minute into “Les Misérables.” Just the opening shot of prison constable Javert (Crowe) looking down on his charge of prisoners gave me a chill that would last for almost three hours. As I write this in early December I feel safe in declaring it the best film of the year!
Based on the musical that took the world by storm, “Les Misérables” is the story of two men, both on missions, both looking to serve God in their own way. The first is Javert, in charge of the men serving hard labor. Among his charges is prisoner 24601, also known as Jean Valjean (Jackman). He has served 19 years at hard labor for the crime of stealing a loaf of bread to feed his hungry nephew. Today he is being paroled, but his freedom will not be long. He must now consign himself to the Navy. Deciding to break parole he stumbles out into the cold night only to be taken in by a kindly Bishop, who gives him food and a bed. But the criminal in Valjean still exists and he makes off with most of the church’s silver. Caught by the police he is brought back to the Bishop, who informs the police that he did, in fact, give him the silver. Shamed by his actions Valjean swears to dedicate his life to God.
Eight years later we meet Mr. Madeleine, a wealthy factory owner and Mayor of a small town. His factory employs many young women, one of them the beautiful Fantine (Hathaway), who is working to support her daughter. The other women are jealous of her virtuous ways and encourage the randy shop foreman to harass her. When she refuses his advances she is fired and though she pleads with Mr. Madeleine it is no use. Destitute and with no one seemingly in her corner she slowly dissolves into a horrible life…selling anything she can, be it her hair, her teeth or her virtue to support her daughter. As this story is unfolding a new visitor comes to town, police inspector Javert. He finds Mr. Madeleine’s face most familiar. Could it be prisoner 24601?
As someone that was lucky enough to see “Les Miz” during its original Broadway run I can attest to all fans that director Tom Hooper and company have created a masterpiece of a production here. From the contrasting colors of the dreary towns and the brightness of the flags flown in protest to the across the board outstanding performances, “Les Misérables” will surely take its place among the greatest musical adaptations ever made.
Both leads give award worthy performances. If you have any knowledge of popular culture then you already know Jackman can sing but how many of you knew Russell Crowe could carry a tune? To be honest I did because he fronts his own band (30 Odd Foot of Grunts). Both play men with similar a similar fate and destiny, knowing that without the other their lives are empty. Javert lives only to capture Valjean, while Valjean lives only to keep one step ahead. As the doomed Fantine Hathaway gives a heartbreaking performance. Go ahead and put her name down in pen on your Oscar ballot this year. She is brilliant. Also lending their voices to the story are Amanda Seyfried as Cosette (Fantine’s daughter, now grown up), Samantha Barks as Eponine and Eddie Redmayne as Marius, the young man both girls love. Also around to lighten the mood are Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter as Mr. and Mrs. Thenardier, proprietors of the worse hotel in town. And how great is it to see Colm Wilkinson, the original London and Broadway stage Jean Valjean, duet with Jackman as the kindly Bishop?
Director Hooper has managed to take the stage bound musical and open it up for the big screen, yet still making the performances intimate. This is done mostly by filming the actors in close up as they sing. Also, in a brilliant move, all of the singing was recorded “live.” With piano tracks playing in an earpiece (the fully orchestrated score was later added in post production) the actors performed as if on stage. This caused the actors to not only act but sing at the same time, giving an emotional lift that may not have been achieved had they been lip-synching. The production values are outstanding and I look for the film to clean up in the various technical categories come Academy Award time.
Extras : A great commentary by director Hooper, plus a couple of featurettes/documentaries on the film’s conception and whatnot.