Les Misérables

11 Jun

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When I finally managed to sit down and watch Tom Hooper’s screen adaptation of iconic musical Les Misérables, I did so in almost complete ignorance of the story. Nevertheless, this lack of knowledge did not dampen my enthusiasm for watching the film; I had intended to see it at the cinema but circumstances had conspired against me to make that impossible. Having eventually picked up a copy on blu-ray, I can say it was worth the wait.

Les Misérables charts the story of several key characters in 19th century France, all looking for redemption or revolution of some sort. The main protagonist is Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman). Having spent 19 years in prison for stealing a loaf of bread, Valjean is finally released, but told he will be on parole for the rest of his life. He initially struggles to break free from thieving, but with the help of a priest he finds God. He decides to break parole, assume a new identity and start his life afresh as an honest man.

All of this takes place at the very beginning of the film, and the quality of performance from Jackman and direction from Hooper hooked me right into the story. As Valjean paces around, singing and trying to work out what to do with his life, the camera follows him face on. This way, as Valjean is plotting his future, we see his face contort with anger, frustration and sadness. Jackman wrings every possible emotion out of his character, and Hooper places us in the perfect position to view it. It’s compelling stuff right from the off.

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It also gives us a feel for the story we’ll be seeing for the next two and a half hours; full of sadness and despair, but with an element of hope and redemption. Intertwined with Valjean’s story is that of his prison guard Javert (Russell Crowe). Once parole is broken, Javert spends years hunting Valjean, and there are several meetings between the two before the film comes to a conclusion. I found the scenes between the pair to be engaging and I believe they worked well together. If I’m honest, it took a little while for me to adjust to Crowe’s singing. I think that probably reflects more on me as a viewer more than it does on Crowe’s performance; he is not an obvious casting choice and he doesn’t come across as a natural for this style of film, yet his performance is still good.

Also linked with Valjean is Fastine (Anne Hathaway), a factory worker who quickly falls on hard times. She has an illegitimate daughter who she is sending money to, and as she is unable to look after her, Valjean takes her into his care. Hathaway took the academy award for best supporting actress for her portrayal of Fastine, and you’d be hard pushed to say she didn’t deserve it. Almost every second of her screen time is extremely moving, and her performance of I Dreamed a Dream is glorious, at once heartbreaking and achingly beautiful.

Her daughter Cosette (Amanda Seyfried) also has moving scenes to get through and she proves to be another wise choice for the film. Her performance is good, she can sing, and as with almost every other actor in this movie, she is completely engaging throughout. In terms of the other eye-catching casting choices, Samantha Barks is wrought with emotion as Éponine, a girl who falls in love but struggles to do anything about it. I thought she was a fantastic supporting character. Eddie Redmayne is excellent as Marius, a would-be revolutionary who also has a love story to contend with.

I found Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter to be amusing as The Thénardier’s, a couple of inn-owners prone to conning their customers. They both played their parts very well, and provided some genuine laughs, which was most welcome in a film not exactly side-splitting in nature. That said, the characters don’t feel that important and their development is easy to forget as soon as they are off screen. That’s through no fault of the performances though; the characters are just not the easiest to care about. Finally, I must throw in a mention for Daniel Huttlestone as Gavroche, a street child who becomes instrumental during a barricade. Huttlestone is full of charm and is completely entertaining.

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It probably goes without saying at this point that the story of Les Misérables is excellent, and I can now fully appreciate why it has gained such iconic status. It is extremely ambitious, spanning many years and taking in huge stories, affecting society at large and detailing the effect on many individual characters. For a story that takes in so many key individuals, they are all extremely well developed and almost all of them become people that you invest in and care about deeply.

Of course, one can’t review Les Misérables without waxing lyrical about the standard of the music. The songs are used to create superb dialogue between the characters, the quality of which occasionally left me completely awestruck. Once one brilliant line has tunefully tumbled out of somebody’s mouth, you have just enough time to consider its brilliance before you’re hit with another bit of fantastic prose. People far more qualified than me will have written plenty about the famous songs of this story, but really, they are at times breathtaking and beautiful.

I was very impressed with Tom Hooper’s direction. The movie looks excellent. It’s often dark, which is completely necessary and perfectly fits the mood of the story. Credit must also go to the costume department; the characters look magnificent in their outfits – it’s just another area of this picture that is perfectly judged. If I will level one slight criticism at this film, it is that I felt every second of its runtime. At two and a half hours, it’s not a short film and there were times that it felt like a little bit of a slog to get through. That’s not to say it doesn’t use the runtime well, in fact I would say none of it is wasted, but it’s quite heavy going so it was never a movie that felt like it was passing by quickly.

As I said though, that’s a slight criticism and should not be enough to put you off this film. What this is, is an extremely engaging story full of sadness and struggle, but tinged with enough hope to make it all bearable and the struggle worthwhile. To use something of a cliché, this movie takes you on a journey and leaves you somewhere completely different to where you started. Oh, and be prepared for one of the more moving endings to a film you’re likely to see for some time.

8/10

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