It’s not often I happily slap top marks on a film. Even rarer are the times I happily award something five out of five and then list all the things that are wrong with it but, in truth, Les Miserables has a few problems. Some – the more bizarre elements of the plot – are inherent in the novel. Some – Cosette’s massively underwritten role – are inherent in the musical. Some – the truly terrible casting of Cohen and Carter – fall firmly at Hooper’s door. I could go on and point a finger at Crowe’s frequently nasal singing, Seyfried’s slightly odd warbling (when you’re wondering what it reminds you of, the answer is “a mogwai”) and the truly terrible casting of Cohen and Carter, but it barely matters. The net result is that Tom Hooper has completely revolutionised the film musical and when it works, which it does frequently, it’s utterly stunning. It’s so stunning, in fact, it almost makes you forget the truly terrible casting of Cohen and Carter. And, quite frankly, even if the bulk of the remaining 152 minutes was all Cohen and Carter – did I mention that they’re truly terrible? – I’d still give it five stars just for the five minutes of Hathaway singing I Dreamed A Dream.
So, for the three of you that haven’t seen the musical or one of the previous straight adaptations of Victor Hugo’s novel, the plot concerns one Jean Valjean (Jackman). Cruelly imprisoned for stealing a loaf of bread for his sister’s starving children, the newly released Valjean wants to go straight but his papers declare him a criminal and legitimate work is thus impossible to find. So, he steals from a priest who’s been sympathetic to his plight. The priest (played by Les Mis legend Wilkinson) not only forgives the indiscretion but rewards Valjean further, an act of redemption that sees Valjean question his existence and vow to change. Flash forward a few years and Valjean has reinvented himself. He’s now a wealthy factory owner, a respected mayor but he’s still a parole-breaker and still being pursued by his nemesis, ruthless police inspector Javert (Crowe). Forced to reveal his true identity, Valjean goes on the run again, complicated this time by the presence of his ward Cosette, the daughter of his late factory worker Fantine (Hathaway). Flash forward a few more years, and Cosette is now fully grown and has fallen instantly in love with Marius (Redmayne). The French Revolution is imminent. Javert is back on Valjean’s tail… Look, you just have to see it. Somehow it seems less daft on screen.
The power of the musical was always in the songs rather than the plot and, for the most part, Hooper squeezes every inch of emotion from every last showstopper. He does this mostly by forcing his camera into the faces of his cast and making them sing live on set. Aside from a couple of big crowd scenes, and the odd cinematic flourish, everything is done live, in intimate close-up and in a single take. And it’s jaw-dropping. Jackman’s musical chops are well known so his brilliance / perfect casting is no great surprise, but Redmayne is a revelation and newcomer Samantha Barks (as Eponine) is heartbreaking. Crowe fares less well during his dramatic vocal moments but is superbly menacing. As for Hathaway, there just aren’t enough superlatives. She lives every single word of I Dreamed A Dream, turning it from a Britain’s Got Talent crowd-pleaser to possibly the most heartrending thing ever written.
And then there’s Cohen and Carter… Having already committed the musical crime of making Sondheim’s greatest female character, Sweeney Todd’s Mrs Lovett, utterly forgettable, Carter does the same to Madame Thenardier. Even then, she’s not as bad as Cohen as her innkeeper husband. Between them, they miss every gag in Master of the House — now a show stopper for all the wrong reasons – and raise not a single titter during the rest of the film, and if ever a tale needed a little comic relief, it’s this one.
But, ultimately, it doesn’t matter. This is a film that, for musical fans at least, changes everything: it doesn’t put you in the best seat in the house, it puts you into a seat that simply doesn’t exist. The flaws are forgivable, the highlights too numerous to mention. The best musical adaptation ever made? Very possibly, but we’ll give it 20 years and a few re-watches before we make that claim. In the meantime though, Les Miserables is a remarkable achievement and a timely reminder of just how powerful cinema can be.
EXTRAS ★★★ An audio commentary with director Hooper; the wonderful six-part making-of featurette Les Miserable: A Revolutionary Approach (1:03:54), which includes interviews with the stars of the film, a look behind the scenes at how the live singing on set was accomplished, the film's West End connection, and more; and the featurette The Original Masterwork: Victor Hugo's Les Miserables (11:11).