movie film review | chris tookey

Les Miserables

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  Les Miserables Review
Tookey's Rating
10 /10
Average Rating
7.05 /10
Hugh Jackman , Russell Crowe , Anne Hathaway
Full Cast >

Directed by: Tom Hooper
Written by: William Nicholson, Herbert Kretzmer, Michael Boublil, Claude-Michel Schonberg , based on the novel by Victor Hugo

Released: 2012
Genre: DRAMA
Origin: UK/ US
Colour: C
Length: 158

A masterpiece.
Reviewed by Chris Tookey

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They dreamed a dream, and now it’s come true. It’s been a long time coming – 27 years since it opened in London - but it’s worth the wait. This is a wonderful movie, an all-time-great musical. It’s guaranteed – despite its title – to raise your spirits, as well as make you cry.

Superbly directed, brilliantly acted and sung with unprecedented emotional depth, this is a magnificent tribute to Working Title and Cameron Mackintosh, who produced it. It isn’t just the most ambitious British film of all time, it’s quite possibly the best.

Victor Hugo’s classic story is about a prisoner Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) consumed by hatred after serving twenty years in prison for a pitifully minor offence - stealing a loaf of bread to feed his sister’s starving child. He breaks his parole and is pursued by a remarkably determined lawman, Javert (Russell Crowe), who believes no criminal can ever reform.

Yet, reform Valjean does. Inspired by the gift of church silver from a bishop he was stealing from (a lovely cameo from Colm Wilkinson, who played Valjean in the original London production), Valjean becomes a factory-owner and mayor of a French town, and surrogate father to Cosette (Isabelle Allen), the orphaned daughter of Fantine (Anne Hathaway), one of Valjean’s factory workers who falls on hard times and turns to prostitution.

Pursued by the implacable Javert, Valjean flees to Paris, where – years later – the now grown Cosette (Amanda Seyfried) falls in love with a revolutionary student called Marius (Eddie Redmayne) just before he helps man the barricades against the repressive French government of 1832.

Comic relief throughout is provided by the Thenadiers (Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter, both hilarious), dishonest innkeepers who mistreat the young Cosette as child labour, and then take their enthusiastic brand of thieving to Paris, where their beautiful daughter Eponine (Samantha Barks) falls unrequitedly in love with Marius’ student revolutionary.

This is a revolutionary musical in more ways than one. Director Tom Hooper’s stylistic masterstroke is to borrow a technique used previously in Peter Boganovich’s catastrophic Cole Porter musical, At Long Last Love. Hooper’s brave choice is not to pre-record his singers, but to record them as they sing on set. This adds hugely to the authenticity and emotional intensity of the singing.

The film does a stunning job of cramming Hugo’s novel into just two and a half hours. The original stage version, which ran three and a half, brought out the emotional highlights of the book but felt rushed. Somehow, William Nicholson has made it leaner and speedier, without sacrificing anything important.

Tom Hooper was a brave choice to direct. His first two films, the Brian Clough biopic The Damned United and the Oscar-winning The King’s Speech were excellent films, but offered few clues that he could direct anything on an epic scale.

Ably supported by casting director Nina Gold and a tremendous crew at Pinewood Studios, he succeeds magnificently, and makes marvellous use of cinema’s two greatest assets over any other art form: the huge panorama – used with special brilliance in the dream finale – and the close-up.

The piece has much grittier documentary realism than I expected, but it also makes room for imaginative cinematography, sets, costumes and make-up, all of which I expect to see reaping their just rewards at awards ceremonies. The costumes and make-up for the villainous Thenardiers are a particular triumph.

But it is Hooper who deserves to attract rave reviews. Wisely, he goes to the other extreme from most fidgety, fast-cutting directors of modern musicals. He trusts the actors to excel in extended takes, often in intimate close-up, allowing them to build a performance and develop the emotional resonance of former Mail TV critic Herbert Kretzmer’s heartfelt lyrics and Claude-Michel Schonberg’s glorious music.

Virtually every song received an ovation at the world premiere, and rightly so. Highlights include Eddie Redmayne’s beautiful tenor rendition of Empty Chairs and Empty Tables, and Anne Hathaway’s raw, astonishingly moving version of I Had a Dream. But there isn’t a dud song or performance in the film.

Jackman manages the vocally and emotionally challenging role of Valjean with such power and integrity that even Daniel Day-Lewis as Abraham Lincoln may find it hard to beat him to Best Actor at the Academy Awards.

Though the least powerful singer in the cast, Crowe does an impressive job of humanising Javert so that he becomes not a melodramatic villain, but a rounded human capable of redemption. The two scenes where he sings about his feelings are staged by Hooper with high intelligence, as mirror images of each other.

The very mixed reviews for the film will come as no surprise to those who remember that the RSC’s original production received even more mixed notices on stage, in 1985. Underlying the antagonistic reviews then were some old-fashioned cultural snobbery about through-composed musicals being intrinsically inferior to opera, a belief that the RSC should be devoting itself to high art rather than populist musicals, and a feeling that Les Mis was a fusty period-piece with little relevance to the present day.

I saw the stage show when it was in previews and remember feeling that it did seem a bit old-fashioned. Student-led revolution had been tried and found wanting in 1968, and Trevor Nunn and John Caird’s production, though set in 1832, felt like a romantic tribute to a much later group of European revolutionaries, Daniel Cohn-Bendit and his followers. But now, the idea of brave but potentially fatal resistance to authoritarian regimes is topical again, with the Arab Spring and resistance to President Assad in Syria. It packs much more emotional punch.

The stage musical has been seen by more than 60 million people in 42 countries. In its new, spectacularly cinematic form, with this remarkable array of performances, it’s going to be seen and enjoyed by even more. I know these are times of austerity but, if necessary, beg for a ticket. Seeing a movie this terrific is a truly thrilling experience.

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