Faith springs to life in Les Mis

The Church of England - - ENGLAND ON SUNDAY - Steve Par­ish

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.

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