I read somewhere that people in musicals sing because they have no other way to express how they feel inside. This axiom is central to understanding the emotionally harrowing adaptation of the Broadway musical hit Les Miserables.
The story is difficult to summarize, at it sprawls over generations and landscapes with many characters in overlapping storylines. The central plot revolves around a convict in post-Napoleonic France: Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman). He is released from 19 years in prison. But this means that he will forever be branded a convict and likely starve to death in the outside world. For reasons that will be shown in the film, he changes his identity and becomes the mayor of a small town and owner of a factory. But an old prison guard named Javert (Russell Crowe), hell-bent on following the exact letter of the law, comes to his town and begins to suspect the mayor's secret. Meanwhile, one of Valjean's employees is discovered to have an illegitimate child. Because of this, the employee, the tragic Fantine (Anne Hathaway) is dismissed and seeks whatever means necessary to support her child.
The above description is close to only the set up for the rest of the musical. It is complex, but easy to follow. Director Tom Hooper, fresh off of his Oscar-winning work in The King's Speech, keeps very clear the lines of action, even when they overlap. But juggling the complex story is only part of his challenge.
Hooper has done something very non-traditional with this film. First, much has been made about the actors singing live. Usually, they record their songs months earlier and lip-sync when they are on the set. Instead, he had the actors sing all of their songs live on set and later added the orchestration. This results in a less pristine, less polished vocal track, but it fills it with a spontaneity that is lacking in most musicals.
Second, I would say that nearly a third of the movie is shot in extreme close up of the characters. This is another clear departure from films like West Side Story, The Sound of Music, and even Moulin Rouge, where the music and dancing are harmonized with a sweeping visual movement that envelopes the audience in the environment. Hooper spends little time on concern for things like sets and choreography. Both of the above departures are strange indeed until you figure out what Hooper's purpose is.
The main art in Les Miserables is not the cinematography, choreography, or even the music (which still resonates after all of these years).
It's all about the acting.
Les Miserables is a movie that is all about showcasing the depth of talent in its actors. You may say that this is true of all movies, but that would not be the case. In a lot of films, you can stitch together an very good film from mediocre performances if you are skilled with a camera and in the editing room. But in Hooper's movie, EVERYTHING hinges on the performances. He gets so up close and personal that if even the slightest facial tic or awkward glance feels out of place, the entire film would be ruined. This is not an exaggeration. Often he does not cut on long closes, such as when Anne Hathaway has to sing her soul-crushing solo. She must perfectly embody the characters complete emotional journey without a single mistake. The same is true for the other actors as well. It is a huge gamble.
And it paid off tremendously.
This film has some of the finest performances I have seen all year. A lot of hay has been made about Hathaway's Fantine. I am here to tell you that it is well deserved. If she does not win an Oscar for this performance I will be horribly surprised. Her "I Dreamed a Dream" hurls you across Fantine's emotional spectrum. You don't just recognize her emotions, you feel what she feels.
Jackman is also fantastic in this movie. He transforms slowly, inch by inch in this film and not a turn of it seems false. By the time you come to the end of his story, Jackman makes you feel the years of hardship not only in his voice, but in his eyes. You see a soul that is being forged in the Refiner's fire.
The performance I was most worried about was Crowe's Javert. I am pleased to say that it is one of the highlights of the film. This character is often portrayed as heartless and cold. And while Crowe also plays him living in a black and white world, his Javert has a special vulnerability. He is a child at heart, one that wants to be a "good boy" in the eyes of God, who thinks that he is the hero of the story. I understood every decision that he made and my heart broke for him.
The funniest part of the film come from the Thenardiers (Sasha Barron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter). They are wicked without remorse, but do so while showing the ugliness of their souls. These are people who think of themselves as master criminals and con artists who are washed up fools.
This film is also one of the most deeply Catholic ones I have seen all year. The world that these miserable people live in is wretched and fallen. It is filled with people who look at you only as a means to their own wealth, power, and pleasure. But even in all of this, love can exist and lift the soul above all of the darkness.
Les Miserables does what acting should do, according to Hamlet, and hold "a mirror up to nature" to show us both the good and the bad, the height and the depth that lurks inside every human soul. That is the epic journey of this movie.
5 out of 5 stars.