Even if you are stringent musical-hater and wouldn’t watch a song-filled film for all the tea in China, you need to put aside everything you know or believe about musicals, because Les Misérables is different. Ha, I hear you cry, but miss this movie and you’re missing something very special in cinema history.
Les Mis, as it is affectionately known the world over, is different because it is much-more than a musical. It is an epic blockbuster that grabs your heart, pulls it out of your chest and dangles it on its strings right from its breathtaking opening scene, and holds onto it, beating and pulsating, until the very last note is sung. Even those with cold water running through their veins will be revved up with so much passion that they will want to march out of the cinema waving a red flag.
Set in the 19th century, the story follows the tale of tormented hero Jean Valjean (Jackman), a decent man who was imprisoned for stealing a loaf of bread to save his starving family. 19 years later he is released and, on the edges of society, is offered refuge by a bishop (Wilkinson). In a moment of weakness Valjean steals the bishop’s silver, but he doesn’t get too far, and is dragged back by the guards to face the bishop. However the clergyman grants Valjean his life and declares he gave the silver to him as a present. In that moment Valjean is reborn and Jackman gives a mesmerising soliloquy as he declares himself a changed man in both name and beliefs. The pure emotion that Jackman exerts from the depths of his diaphragm as he sings directly to the camera is heart melting.
This new man, however, is followed by the darkness of his past, in the form of Javert, who, thanks to his depraved upbringing, is determined that no matter how good a person has become, they will always be a criminal. Having skipped out on his parole so that he could pursue his new life, Javert makes it his mission to recapture Valjean. In the meantime Valjean has turned his life around gaining respect as mayor and as a wealthy factory owner.
Just as Javert catches up with him for the first time, Valjean’s path crosses with that of his former employee Fantine (Hathaway) who has fallen on hard times after he approved her sacking. He rescues her from the underworld, but it’s too late, as she is nearing her death. Before she passes, Valjean promises to take care of her daughter Cosette who he must rescue from money swindling Thénardiers (Baron Cohen and Bonham Carter).
Moving to Paris, a grown-up Cosette (Seyfried) falls fatefully in love with Marius (Redmayne) a solider of the people who is at the forefront of the revolution. As Paris erupts into violence, Valjean must not only face his final reckoning with Javert, but he must also ensure Cosette’s future happiness.
Les Mis, is a powerful piece of cinema that so captures its audience with its compelling sincerity and endearing vulnerability that at times you just want to wrap yourself up in it. The live singing from the cast adds to its truthfulness which they mastered by wearing a small earpiece that gave them just a light piano accompaniment to guide them. This allowed the actors to bring the words of each song to life as they performed it. Even for avid fans of the original stage prodcution, new meaning is brought to each song, a rawness that can sometimes be lost in the vastness of the theatre. Even the odd bum note felt like it should be there, because each performance was just so real.
Jackman and Hathaway steal the show on the singing front with stirring and mesmerising vocals, while Crowe, who may not be up to their standards, delivers one of the most sympathetic and stripped back performances of his career. For me though, the surprise standout was Eddie Redmayne who portrays the rebellious Marius with such captivating emotion it was hard not to shed a tear during his haunting rendition of Empty Chairs at Empty Tables. The comedic relief provided by Baron Cohen and Bonham Carter is well-timed and executed with aplomb.
My only criticism if I was to have any, and this is just nit-picking, was that I would have liked to see more on the screen. I understand director Tom Hooper’s decision to use close-ups but after the great vastness of the opening scene, which got the pulse racing instantly, it felt like a bit of tease that you didn’t have many more wide shots to capture the iconic landmarks of France.
That being said, the film looked beautiful from start to finish, from rolling hills to the lavish interiors of France to the costumes and mamoth set pieces, to the blood red flag waved by the rebellious troop. And as this was film, the number of people they could have in the chorus was above and beyond anything they can do on stage, adding layers upon layer to the landscape and story.
Go see this movie, even if you are a little skeptical. Whether or not you love it as much as I did, you are guaranteed a thoroughly excellent evening of entertainment and will feel like your money was well spent.