Les Miserables,
directed by Tom Hooper
(Universal, 2012)

The movie version of Les Miserables shows every bad tooth and skin disease of the French groundlings in a kind of disgusting, close-up detail no stage production could ever hope to match.

Ick. I've seen Les Miz on stage four times to date -- Broadway, Baltimore, Hershey and Toronto -- and never have I come away thinking the characters needed some kind of lotion.

But OK, people don't go to see this show because they want a lesson in hygiene. They come for the songs, and the singing.

I have to say, I was largely unimpressed by that, too, as French convicts -- including our soon-to-be hero, Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) -- haul a massive French ship of the line into drydock in a visually stunning opening scene. Valjean gets his freedom from the reluctant hand of Javert (Russell Crowe) and his redemption from the Bishop of Digne (a welcome cameo by Colm Wilkinson).

And then, Anne Hathaway.

Hathaway, as the poor, unfortunate Fantine, is where the movie really starts to sing. It's not so much that she has an excellent voice -- which she does, truly -- but that she pours forth so much emotion that I felt her despair on a visceral level. Wow.

Fantine loses her factory job, and we watch as her will is broken and broken again -- selling her last prized possessions, then her hair, then her teeth and finally her body -- as she tries to make enough money to support her absent daughter. Her tortured rendition of "I Dreamed a Dream" is simply remarkable.

It is a performance without ego, as Hathaway becomes unattrative through despair and hardship, eyes and nose streaming as she suffers -- but there is no disguising that luminous voice.

She sets a bar for excellent that the rest of the cast is only sometimes able to match.

Jackman is a fine singer, and his voice grows on me as his story unfolds. He carries the role of the truly redeemed man admirably, a paragon of strength and selflessness to the end. Crowe is not so fine, and while he carries well the formidable menace of his position, his vocals are uniformly dull and uninteresting.

Of course, there's the innkeeper and his wife, and there's nothing dull or uninteresting in deft performances by Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter. Full marks for their enthusiasm and for providing much-needed comic relief. They -- Carter especially -- are a little hard to understand at times, but their meaning is usually mimed sufficiently for clarity.

I will never understand how Marius (Eddie Redmayne) is lured away from the steadfast Eponine (Samantha Barks) for the lukewarm Cosette (Amanda Seyfried) -- all it takes is a fleeting glimpse of a pretty face and the young hero is instantly and devotedly in love. Sigh. Of the three, Barks certainly demonstrates the best voice, although Redmayne pulls it together for a strong and sorrowful "Empty Chairs at Empty Tables." Seyfried ... well, she has a pretty face.

Overall, director Tom Hooper's decision to record the songs live while filming -- rather than in a studio beforehand -- might have caused the quality to suffer slightly, but it certainly gives the music a raw quality and an immediacy that a lip-synced performance could never carry. And, while I suspect I'll always prefer a stage recording of Les Miz over the movie soundtrack, I have no major complaints about the performances here.

And there's no denying the film gives Victor Hugo's story a scope and grandeur that fills in the gaps left by a minimalist stage set and props. I will surely jump at the chance to see this musical live again -- and I recommend the experience highly to anyone who has the opportunity -- but this movie does it justice. Having seen it once with my wife, I was eager to return and share it with my daughter.

review by
Tom Knapp

9 February 2013

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