Movie Review: Les Miserables
By Edwin Davies
December 26, 2012
Based on his previous films - 2009's The Damned United and 2010's The King's Speech - it's unlikely that many people thought of Tom Hooper as the natural choice to direct the film adaptation of Les Miserables. After all, his first two films consisted largely - in the case of The King's Speech, almost solely - of people talking in small, cramped rooms, and neither is comparable in scale to the task of bringing one of the most popular stage musicals in history to the screen. They also raise the spectre of every dramatist who has tried their hand at imitating the rhythms and style of musicals without actually understanding what can make them so spellbinding. (See Joel Schumacher's execrable adaptation of Phantom of the Opera for a textbook example of one such debacle.)
Fortunately, Hooper seems to be aware of his limitations, and whilst the operatic quality of Les Miserables represents a great departure for him, he doesn't try any awkward, fumbling attempts at mounting a traditional movie musical. Rather than staging elaborate numbers, most of the songs in the film are depicted in close-ups, allowing for a keener focus on the physical performances of the actors, stripping away much of the ostentation of musicals whilst retaining the heightened emotions. It's an occasionally disorienting approach to the material that plays against expectations whilst also playing to the strengths of the actors, who tend to place a stronger emphasis on acting over singing when the camera is so close that it makes physical movement less of a necessity.
Nowhere is this more effectively done than during Anne Hathaway's performance of "I Dreamed A Dream". First off, it's a beautiful and emotionally devastating song even outside of the context of the story: as delivered by Fantine, the poor woman who finds herself falling into a cycle of abuse and degradation to provide for her daughter, Cosette (played by Amanda Seyfried), it's a song that is rife with boundless sorrow and yearning for a better yesterday when today and tomorrow look so utterly bleak. As strong as the song itself is, it's given an extra charge by the look of pain and fear on Anne Hathaway's tear-stained face. It's a much rawer performance than you might expect in a lavish musical, and such an intense, uncomfortable focus amplifies the power of the original song. It helps that Hathaway's vocals are more than up to the task, and the resulting scene is nothing short of majestic.
Whilst Hathaway gets the defining moment of the film, much of the heavy lifting is carried out by Hugh Jackman and Russell Crowe, as the noble thief Jean Valjean and the malevolent policeman Javert, respectively. Though the relationships between Valjean, Fantine and Cosette are important parts of the story, it is the cat-and-mouse game that the two men play over more than a decade that defines both participants, as well as the film itself. From the moment both men are introduced in a prison in 1815 (Javert as a guard, Valjean as Prisoner 24601), their destinies become inexorably entwined, and as Valjean breaks his parole and tries to reinvent himself as an honest businessman, Javert is always a step or two behind him.