As someone who has never seen the stage production, I expected "Les Miserable" to follow a trend of darker toned, almost anti-holiday releases this December. Or, as Anne Hathaway and Samuel L. Jackson put in in their hilarious Funny or Die send up for Les Miz and "Django Unchained," nothing says Christmas like avenging slaves and dying French whores.
The movie follows Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) beginning in early 1815 with his lifetime parole after serving 19 years of horrific French imprisonment (five years for stealing a loaf of bread and the rest for escape attempts). Valjean, unable to find work or any scrap of human kindness as an ex-con, breaks his parole and what follows is the great-great-great-great-great grandmother of all chase stories as police officer, Javert (Russell Crowe), spends the next 16 years tracking him down.
It's inspiring to watch Valjean transform from a bitter, hateful man into a successful, honorable citizen and dutiful father all while being hunted. There are so many memorable and fascinating characters andstory-linesthat play outparallelto Valjean and Javert, it's no wonder high school students find themselves wishing there were Cliff Notes for the Cliff Notes when assigned to read Victor Hugo's weighty original novel.
The performances are mostly fantastic with veteran stage performers Hugh Jackman (Valjean), Eddie Redmayne (Marius), and Samantha Barks (Eponine) laying the foundation of strong vocals and giving heft to Anne Hathaway's Fantine (the dying French prostitute) and Russell Crowe's tormented cop, Javert. Hathaway's acting and vocals (I could hear people reaching around in their pockets for tissues during "I Dreamed a Dream") were breathtaking and her overall performance should earn her armfuls of award nominations.
Russell Crowe does not have a the booming stage voice of the more traditional Javert, but his acting was so subtle and honest that it worked. The least successful of the performances for a major character was Amanda Seyfried as Cosette. Seyfriend is pretty enough to play Valjean's cherished adopteddaughterbut she lacked both the pipes and the acting chops to leave any lasting impact.
Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Benham Carter were delightfully scummy as the infamous thieving inn-keepers,Monsieurand Madame Thenardier. I was grateful that neither actor attempted to reshape their character in their own image which could easily have destroyed their big number and one of my favorites,Master of the House."
Redmayne's performance throughout the movie and of singing Empty Chairs and Empty Tables was raw and definitely showed off the advantage of filming live-singing.
Knowing that the actors were singing live as they filmed draws the audience into the story with greater authenticity than a pitch-perfect soundtrack recorded in a studio andlip-syncedby actors during filming months later. The moment when you find out Javert knows that he has finally found Jean Valjean is one of the more physically andmusicallyimpressive moments as both actors sing while fighting.
Running at a meaty 157 minutes, I never felt the movie sagged - and not just because I already knew most of the songs.
There's a reason "Les Miserables" is such a celebrated musical and Tom Hooper such a venerated film maker. The decision to film live-singing showcases the best of film and the best of live performance - not an easy task. The impressive set design creates a gritty 19thcentury Paris while at the same time resisting the temptation to become strictly a period piece. Rather, Hooper and the performers remind us why Hugo's story is timeless.
**Note: This was written by my girlfriend and myself**