The wildly popular musical Les Misérables, first produced in English in 1985, reaches the screen in an extravagant visualization directed by Tom Hooper (The King’s Speech). Like Joe Wright’s Anna Karenina it seeks to reinvent the intimate epic, while taking an opposite tack. Where Wright took a realistic plotan adulterous affairand superimposed a grand artificiality, Hooper takes a complex, multigenerational saga of crime, passion and revenge and uses a documentarian’s camera to bring the audience straight into the heart of the fugitive Jean Valjean.
Valjean (Hugh Jackman) has spent almost two decades in jail for stealing a loaf of bread. Finally released, he breaks parole to begin a new life, yet he is dogged by the implacable Inspector Javert (Russell Crowe). He meets a pitiful prostitute, Fantine (Anne Hathaway), and promises her on her deathbed to raise her daughter, Cosette (Amanda Seyfried), who is destined to fall in love with revolutionary Marius (Eddie Redmayne).
Les Miz is operatic, using sung dialogue, rather than the songs and speech of a typical Broadway-style musical. This may distance the unaccustomed viewer, but Hooper also reaches back to the earliest days of talking pictures to record all the singing live. These long takes and piercingly emotional moments (Hathaway’s heartbreaking “I Dreamed a Dream” will certainly net her an Oscar nomination) are extremely effective in making the characters’ dilemmas immediate and wrenching.
Jackman, too, benefits from this technique, Crowe, less so. Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen bring welcome comic energy to the light-fingered innkeepers; their appearance keeps the 157-minute film from becoming too lugubrious, with one tearful solo following another. The title means “the miserable ones,” after all. The production design is sumptuous, and the early-19th-century Paris, executed via CGI, evocative.
If you are one of the many fans of the popular Les Miz, you will find the cinematic version exciting and rewarding. Not a fan? You may remain unconvinced.
This article appeared in print with the headline “Research and/or rhetoric.”