Faith springs to life in Les Mis
Les Misérables (cert. 12A) is a marvellous film setting of the stage musical that began life as a French-language record by Alain Boublil and Jean-Marc Natel, followed by a short-lived stage version in Paris. Cameron Mackintosh reworked it with English lyrics by Herbert Kretzmer under the direction of Trevor Nunn, then artistic director of the Royal Shakespeare Company, so it came to the Barbican with an RSC badge, and is now the longest running West End musical.
Maybe up in the gods at the Queen’s Theatre wasn’t the best way to get a grip on the stage show, but the film makes it all far more accessible, and comprehensible, and makes it hard to miss the biblical quotes and Christian allusions. From the outset the charity of the bishop (Colm Wilkinson) in saving Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) from the gallows sets a tone of grace, against which the upholder of the law, Inspector Javert (Russell Crowe), seems not upright but mean and graceless.
The bishop’s act of kindness means Valjean can turn his life around, and in turn save another human being. It’s too late for Fantine (Anne Hathaway), but Valjean commits to rescuing her daughter Cosette (Isabelle Allen) from the clutches of the awful innkeeper Thénardier (Sacha Baron Cohen) and his awful wife (Helena Bonham Carter).
A haunting image of Cosette from an edition of Victor Hugo’s novel illustrated by Émile Bayard has been used to publicise the musical. Hugo’s other great child character is Gavroche (Daniel Huttlestone), taking a lead at the barricades of the June rebellion in Paris of 1832.
By then Cosette is a young woman (Amanda Seyfried), catching the eye of Marius (Eddie Redmayne), one of the would-be revolutionaries, and torn between her love for him and her substitute father’s need to keep one step ahead of the dogged Javert. Valjean’s refusal to take a chance to dispose of Javert, and a rather realistic slosh through the sewers, leads to a scene where Javert, shamed both by his failure to catch Valjean and by Valjean’s mercy, falls spectacularly to his death.
The plot of course is not much of a secret, and most of the songs are now well-known. However, the choice of director Tom Hooper to film the actors singing the songs rather than lip-sync to studio recordings gives a close-up immediacy that not even a live stage show could capture.
Anne Hathaway’s acclaimed performance of “I dreamed a dream” carries a depth of emotion that matches the image of Fantine, degraded, hair shorn, hope gone. It is the highlight of the music, but none of the cast fails to get to the heart of the songs. Russell Crowe might be a bit stiff at times (but that’s surely Javert for you), Jackman and Redmayne convey their stories well, and Amanda Seyfried’s voice has just an echo of Julie Covington.
Baron Cohen and Bonham Carter are outrageous in “Master of the House”, singing as they steal from customers (the credits include James Freedman as pickpocket consultant), and the ensemble pieces like “One Day More” show off Claude-Michel Schönberg’s music at its most clever. “Do You Hear the People Sing?” is a fitting accompaniment to the doomed defence of the barricades.
Jackman and Hathaway won Golden Globes, and the film won best picture in the “comedy or musical” category (Argo won in the best drama section). The same result in the Oscars® is less likely, without the separate categories.
An award for the sound mixing is possible and maybe for other technical stuff – the recreation of Paris streets, if a bit anachronistic, is a triumph, while Danny Cohen’s cinematography seems to capture every setting to perfection. From the opening scene of convicts dragging a ship into a dry dock, singing “Look Down”, to the finale of the hope to “live again in freedom in the garden of the Lord” it’s a stunning production.