“Les Misérables” has had a long, arduous journey to the silver screen. It’s been in the works for so long that at one point the film was going to be directed by the now retired Alan Parker, who made the original “Fame” and 1996 adaptation of “Evita.” After decades of rotting in development limbo, the cherished musical finally sees the light of day via the artistic eye of director Tom Hooper of “The King’s Speech. Hooper’s interpretation of “Les Misérables” is a majestic experience composed of enormous sets, elegant costumes, and pitch perfect performances from the entire ensemble. This may very well be the most triumphant movie musical since the genre made a comeback a decade ago with “Moulin Rouge!” and “Chicago.”
Hugh Jackman has become so recognizable as the gritty, brooding Wolverine that most mainstream audiences don’t even realize he’s one of the most musically charismatic actors alive. It’s actually a bit of a crime that it’s taken so long for this Tony-award winning performer to finally do a flat-out movie musical. Jackman was destined to play the role of Jean Valijean, a Frenchman who is freed after 19 years of incarceration for stealing a loaf of bread. The Australian actor embodies all of the torment and confusion of Valijean as he becomes lost in an unwelcoming world. He eventually finds sanctuary with a Bishop played by Colm Wilkinson who influences the former prisoner to live an honest life. Valijean thus rips up his parole papers and establishes a new identity with the hope of finding redemption. Hot on his trail is Russell Crowe’s Javert, a police inspector keen on locating Valijean and imprisoning him once more.
In only about a half hour on screen, Anne Hathaway gives the single most gut-wrenching, tragic performance of the year as Fantine. Fired from her job as a factory worker, the distressed Fantine is forced to sell her hair, teeth, and body to provide for her illegitimate little girl, Cosette. Hathaway reaches the pinnacle of her already impressive career in the number of “I Dreamed a Dream.” Where a majority of “Les Misérables” is filmed with the sweeping scope of an epic, director Hooper and cinematographer Danny Cohen subtly keep the camera fixated on Hathaway’s face for the entirety of this scene. Every expression, every note, every queue, every raw emotion Hathaway emits in this anguishing sequence will tear you up inside. If she doesn’t win the Oscar for this performance, it will be a great tragedy.
Fantine is eventually unable to continue caring for her darling Cosette, who is played by Isabelle Allen as a little girl and Amanda Seyfried as a young adult. Cosette comes into the custody of Valijean, who discovers his purpose in life as the orphaned girl’s father. On the run from Inspector Javert and caught up in the 1832 June Rebellion in Paris, the father and daughter encounter a number of interesting characters together. It feels like Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter’s careers have been leading up to them playing the thieving Monsieur and Madame Thénardier, providing some much needed humor in the hilarious “Master of the House.” Samantha Barks delivers a star making performance as the destitute Éponine, nailing the heartfelt “On My Own.” Eddie Redmayne of “My Week with Marilyn” is also commendable as Marius, a young French man taking part in the student revolutions and the object of Cosette’s affections.
Along with Hooper’s all-encompassing direction, the performers are key to what makes this adaptation of “Les Misérables” so sensational. In many modern movie musicals the actors can sometimes feel detached from the roles. The cast of “Mamma Mia!” pretty much drifted through the movie with no direction or spirit. Everybody in “Les Misérables” on the other hand, flawlessly captures the soul of their characters. This has much to do with the fact that all of the actors sang their numbers live on camera, as apposed to dubbing the singing portions in later. This ambitious decision makes for an even grander, more intimate extravaganza of humanity and beautiful music.