Even those who are not devotes of musical theater will find themselves emotionally manipulated by Working Title Films’ latest version of — the novel, turned Broadway sensation, turned Christmas movie blockbuster of — Les Miserables on an epic scale.
Les Mis, as a theatrical enterprise was always about sweeping sentimentality. And the grandiose 1862 Victor Hugo novel, which translates to, “The Victims,” was never short on ennui either. This film version is a particular tearjerker because of the much-discussed live action singing and some excellent casting.
Director Tom Hooper (The King’s Speech) decided that all of the songs would be recorded live, rather than lip sung during filming and added in post-production. Whether or not this technique is as innovative as some have praised it to be is beside the point, because it’s effective.
The live singing allowed the actors to perform songs with impromptu nuance, rather than be forced to fit their faces to a separate vocal track. This immediacy gives the ballads the exhilaration of the stage, and the camera provides something Broadway never could, close-ups of the actors’ faces.
“I dreamed a Dream,” Fantine (Anne Hathaway’s) paean of loss, is delivered in its entirety, a capella, as a tight shot of Hathaway’s face. We see in every quiver of her mouth, and flash of her eyes, the despair, humiliation, and in the end, fury she feels that “life has killed the dream [she] dream[s].” Hathaway’s own mother played the role on Broadway, and quit to devote herself to parenting.
It’s fitting that her daughter has a powerful emotional connection to the role of mother who would do anything for her child. Yet, Hathaway gives complexity to a character that has previously only been portrayed as a martyr. Hathaway’s Fantine has sarcasm when she leads a sailor to her bed, prissiness when she defends herself against other factory workers, and sass when she rages against Jean Valjean for letting her be fired.
Likewise, Hugh Jackman, as Jean Valjean was essential to the film even being made. Hooper said, "Hugh has a kind of innate grace and spirit as a human being and a great kind of moral compass and gentleness that is perfectly suited for this man going on this spiritual journey.” Jackman’s performance carries the film beyond its saccharine lyrics.
While most of the cast has a musical theater background, some voices are stronger than others. Jackman’s is phenomenal. The film opens with, “Overture/Work Song” as Valjean and fellow shackled prisoners are forced to labor like slaves. The film iconography is evocative of the Roman Empire, yet Jackman’s quiet despair is more reminiscent of Primo Levi’s Holocaust biography Survival in Auschwitz.
The Italian translation of Levi’s work is the more apt, "What is a Man?" and Jackman’s emaciated, tortured Valjean is the epitome of how much a man can bear before losing his humanity. We see him taken to the edge and led back, in a performance convincing enough to believe in Valjean’s otherwise dubious, and seemingly endless quest for salvation.
While some characters and songs remain as camp and flat as the theatrical iterations — Sacha Baron Cohen (Thenardier) and Helena Bonham Carter (Madame Thenardier) are anachronistic and derivative doing “Master of the House” — Samantha Barks as Eponine brings feminist heroism to a role that is usually played only as a pathetic lovelorn girl. Russell Crowe’s Javert is also shown to literally and figuratively walk the line of moral certainty, making his eventual epiphany more believable.
On the whole however, this is not a subtle film. But if you silence your inner snob, and bring plenty of tissues, Les Miserables will bring you surprising pleasure. And pleasure, as the great film critic Pauline Kael taught us, is what movies are all about.
This film opens nationwide Christmas Day.