“Les Miserables” was originally written in 1862 by the classic master Victor Hugo. The novel is considered one of the greatest of the 19th century as well as the longest at a staggering 1900 pages. The musical adaptation of the tome began in 1973 when playwright Alain Boublil saw the premiere of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Jesus Christ Superstar”. It took Boublil seven years to adapt Hugo’s massive tome for the stage. And in 1980, the musical debuted in Paris.
It took another five years before it debuted in London’s West End with Colm Wilkinson in the role of Jean Valjean. It was an immediate smash and became the second longest running musical in London’s West End history and when it finally debuted on Broadway became the fourth longest there.
“Les Miserables” was a global sensation in the 80’s and it’s success was only is compared to that of “Cats” and “Phantom of the Opera”. Theatre thespians call the role of Jean Valjean one of the greatest parts an actor can play right up there with Hamlet and Richard III. The funny thing no thespian has ever won an award for the role. Could Hugh Jackman change that?
The story is about an ex-con named Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman), who transforms his life after taking refuge in a church where a bishop (Colm Wilkinson) takes pity on him. Valjean becomes a successful businessman and while trying to shake off the police banishes one of his workers, single mother Fantine (Anne Hathaway) to the streets. Hot on his trail throughout the story is Javert (Russell Crowe) who wants to bring down Valjean by any means necessary. Their twisted games often effect the people around Valjean and their pursuit stretches deep into the French Revolution.
Through the journey we are introduced to Fantine’s daughter Cosette (Amanda Seyfried), her revolutionary lover, Marius (Eddie Redmayne) and a crazy innkeeper (Sacha Baron Cohen) and his wife (Helena Bonham Carter).
Bringing the musical version to the silver screen has been quite an undertaking. Both in the late 80s and mid 90s, versions were almost greenlit. In 1998, a very serious and unmusical version starring Liam Neeson was released which kind of shocked fans of the musical. The 2006 revival and the 2010 25th Anniversary special really pushed the idea of bringing Les Miserables back to the big screen.
Producer Cameron MacKintosh had been trying since 1992 to get this version of the film made. He started with an ill-fated venture that had Bruce Beresford at the helm. It wouldn’t be until 2005 that MacKintosh tried again but never got a script he liked until 2010 from William Nicholson. Nicholson had worked on “Shadowlands”, “Gladiator” and “Elizabeth: The Golden Age” but he hadn’t written a musical, let alone adapted one, since 1992’s “Sarafina” starring Whoopi Goldberg.
Finally in March 2012, MacKintosh had his director (Tom Hooper) and his stars lined up. Originally Paul Bettany was going to play Javert but backed out opening it for Russell Crowe. Hugh Jackman was always the first choice for Valjean.
Hooper is an actor’s director. He proved that with his rather intimate photography and blocking of Colin Firth in “The King’s Speech”. But other than Firth’s performance what else do you remember about the film? The same can be said about his take on Les Miserables. He shoots his actors close, intimate and hardly ever shows the scope or epic scale of the piece. This can be a double-edged sword when it comes to a story of this magnitude. Yes, Jackman, Anne Hathaway, Eddie Redmayne and Amanda Seyfried benefit from this focus but the film as a whole suffers.
The perfect example of this failure in contrast is Anne Hathaway’s solo. It is one of the most beautiful and heart-wrenching moments seen in movies in probably a decade. The pinnacle of Anne’s still evolving career and Hooper is in his element when he shot it.
On the flipside, take the rather awful and hard to follow musical number involving Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter as we are introduced to the thievery at the inn. Hooper is completely lost on how to shoot an actor like Cohen who loves to improvise and the craziness going around him. He just doesn’t know where to put the camera and what to follow.
The original take on the production was going to have the actors mouth the words to the songs and digitally insert the songs using sound booth recordings later. But it was Hooper who wanted the actors to actually sing on stage while filming. This was kind of a mixed bag success as well. For the actors it was probably a godsend as they say in all the promotions for the film. But as a viewer some of the singing is difficult to make out especially since some scenes can’t be shot in Hooper’s comfortable intimate setting. Case in point, the opening with the prisoners pulling a giant ship off the ocean while singing.
There are other examples throughout the film of good Hooper, bad Hooper.
What sold me on the film were the performances from Jackman, Hathaway and Redmayne. I felt that Russell Crowe was a little out of his element even though he has musical training. Amanda Seyfried sings like she is a Disney princess not a musical performer. And Cohen and Carter look like they were rejects from a Tim Burton film. They do deliver some chuckles but I have to wonder what Hooper missed from Cohen.
4 out of 5
So Says the Soothsayer