Les Misérables

Directed By: Tom Hooper

Starring: Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, Anne Hathaway, Amanda Seyfried, Samantha Barks, Helena Bonham Carter, Eddie Redmayne, and Sacha Baron Cohen

In musicals, acting is often compromised at the expense of singing.  Because a musical's selections are traditionally recorded before filming occurs, actors are playing to performances they gave before ever arriving on set.  As such, creativity and spontaneity are often stifled in actors' portrayals of their characters.  Well, The King's Speech director Tom Hooper spits in the face of this tradition with his adaptation of Alain Boublil's Les Misérables.  Hooper has decided to record the musical selections live while his cast members are acting on set.  Acting and singing simultaneously is a tough endeavor, especially given the fact that we're talking about arguably the most famous musical of all time.  Any mistakes are amplified on the big screen, so there is certainly some creative risk here.  Having now seen the film, all I can say is that this little experiment has paid hefty dividends.

For stealing bread to help his starving nephew, Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) has served a prison sentence for nineteen winters.  Many of these years were spent under the watch of Inspector Javert (Russell Crowe), a police officer who follows the letter of the law to the fullest extent.  Having been released on parole, Valjean finds himself in the home of the Bishop of Digne (Colm Wilkinson).  After receiving a great deal of hospitality from the bishop, Valjean steals silver in the middle of the night and flees the bishop's home.  He's caught by the French police and brought back to the bishop for justice.  A holy man, the bishop covers for Valjean and tries to convince him to live a better life.  With his soul now saved, Valjean commits himself to being an honest man.

Because the bishop let him keep the silver and amass significant wealth, Jean Valjean has forged a new identity for himself.  A successful businessman and mayor of the town of Montreuil-sur-Mer, he's commonly referred to as "Monsieur le maire".  He owns a factory and employs many of the women in the town.  Fantine (Anne Hathaway), one of his employees, gets into a scuffle with her fellow employees and is fired on Valjean's watch.  Facing financial woes, Fantine finds herself on the streets as a prostitute.  She must care for her sickly daughter Cosette (Isabelle Allen - younger; Amanda Seyfried - older) no matter what the cost to her.  When Valjean learns what has become of Fantine, he does everything in his power to right this wrong.  Meanwhile, Javert has dedicated his life to hunting down prisoner 24601 and bringing him back to justice.  He's beginning to think that the mayor resembles his old foe.

With rousing musical numbers, powerful acting, and a glorious vision of nineteenth century France, Tom Hooper has once again struck cinematic gold in Les Misérables.  Everything just clicks in this movie as Hooper brings this beloved musical back to life on the big screen.  Given an incredible orchestra and some surprisingly enjoyable vocals, all the tunes we know and love are here.  Thanks to live singing on set, the actors really get to flesh out their characters and give rich, uninhibited performances.  Under the brilliant eye of Hooper himself, France and the French Revolution are brought to life in a way they never could be in an actual stage production.  All in all, Hooper has given us the best musical in years, one that fittingly stands in the company of classic films like The Wizard of Oz and West Side Story.

The musical selections in this movie are second to none.  With Les Misérables veteran and theatre composer Claude-Michel Schönberg at the helm, the cast members and the orchestra hit all the right notes, particularly in three-part harmonies and group songs.  While Anne Hathaway and Samantha Barks probably offer the richest vocals in the movie, I have to say that Russell Crowe floored me.  This guy, whose deep and slightly raspy voice has been heard in many a film, is actually a solid tenor.  I had no idea that Crowe could sing, and he's certainly proven himself more than just capable of portraying Maximus or John Nash.  He’s a very versatile actor.  Hugh Jackman and Eddie Redmayne are also strong vocalists in the film.

Beyond the actors/singers, Schönberg has an orchestra to showcase.  With the incredible, rich compositions of Les Misérables, he does just that throughout the film.  From subtle, low key accompaniments to thunderous selections on the battlefield, the orchestra consistently delivers lush instrumental music that perfectly complements everything the performers are singing on set.  There were times in the film that I could honestly just close my eyes and nod my head to the magnificent instrumentals gifted to us by Schönberg's orchestra.

The acting in Les Misérables is impeccable.  The cast members are acting at a high level while they're singing, a very daunting task.  As our star Jean Valjean, Hugh Jackman is the best example of this.  While he's been pigeonholed in six X-Men films as Wolverine, Jackman puts his true acting prowess on display in the film.  Belting out quite a few tunes, he consistently shows us the tolls of a life of crime and gives one of the best performances of his career.  Stealing bread is apparently a dangerous business.  As Fantine, Anne Hathaway also gives a phenomenal performance.  With her emotive, moving rendition of "I Dreamed a Dream", she steals the show with raw, fierce acting and undeniably beautiful vocals.  With The Dark Knight Rises and now Les Misérables, 2012 has been a pretty great year for Anne Hathaway.

The other cast members are all perfect in their roles as well.  Their performances reflect great casting decisions by Hooper.  Russell Crowe is the ideal man to bring Javert to life on the big screen.  In the last several years, he's been playing darker characters, and Javert is just in line with this.  As Thénardier and Madame Thénardier, Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter bring quite a bit of quirky comic relief to the film.  Aside from The Dictator, Baron Cohen has been making some interesting career choices as of late — Hugo and now Les Misérables.  Carter is simply reuniting with Hooper, her director in The King's Speech.  As Marius and Cosette, Eddie Redmayne (My Week with Marilyn) and Amanda Seyfried (Gone, Red Riding Hood) bring the right dose of youthful energy to the film and deliver some enjoyable selections as well.

The cast and crew do some outstanding work in Les Misérables.  At the center of it all though, we have director Tom Hooper.  For his part, he brings this vision of a nineteenth century France embroiled in the French Revolution to life in a grand way.  You can see it in the makeup of the whores on the streets of France or in the sickly faces of Fantine and Jean Valjean.  You can experience it in the bloody battle scenes brought to life in vivid ways that could never be done in a stage production via impressive special effects and set design.  You can feel it in the facial close-ups Hooper uses constantly during selections to highlight the volatile emotions boiling over in his dejected, rebellious characters.  Altogether, Hooper has woven a masterful musical here and stepped into a different class of directors with this impressive film.

Les Misérables is a modern classic that delivers the goods.  Tom Hooper, his actors, and his crew are firing on all cylinders.  If there has ever been a flawless adaptation of a musical to the big screen, this might just be it.  Les Misérables gets a sober rating.  We now have the perfect Christmas movie for this holiday season.  Go back and revisit nineteenth century France, and get some enjoyable tunes in the process.