Tom Hooper’s Les Misérables follows in the healthiest traditions of most big-budget movie musicals, in which the best and brightest talents in the fields of acting, singing, music, art direction, cinematography, costumes, and makeup are gathered to ensure the best possible viewing experience. This is nothing less than a fairytale ending for a project that had been stuck in development hell since the late 1980s, at which point it was a smash hit musical play in both London (where it’s still being performed) and New York. This movie is not only terrific entertainment, filled with showstoppers and themes you will undoubtedly leave the theater humming, it’s also profoundly moving; when the end credits start rolling, it’s unlikely there will be a dry eye in the house.
Much has been made of the fact that, rather than lipsync to their own prerecorded voices, the actors sang live on set. This isn’t unheard of in the movies, but it is uncommon. Although there’s a noticeable loss in booming theatricality, which most stage shows are known for, there’s also a noticeable increase in believable emotional range. Listen, for example, to Anne Hathaway as she sings the show’s most famous song, “I Dreamed a Dream”; because she’s not on stage, because her voice doesn’t have to carry to the theater’s nosebleed sections, she never once belts out her notes unnecessarily. Instead, she focuses on the despair her character, Fantine, has sunk into, allowing herself to sob and her voice to crack. Hathaway’s tragic intensity, coupled with her jaw-droppingly powerful rendition of the song, has almost assuredly made her a shoo-in for an Oscar nomination.
The basic story, adapted from the novel by Victor Hugo, is by now very well known, not just because of the popularity of the musical play, but also because of its numerous other non-musical screen incarnations. The characters are now beloved by millions. There’s Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman), who’s on parole after serving a nineteen-year prison sentence for stealing a loaf of bread for his sister’s starving child. There’s Inspector Javert (Russell Crowe), who becomes obsessed with arresting Valjean after he breaks his parole. There’s Hathaway’s Fantine, a deeply tragic figure who must resort to prostitution in order to pay for the welfare of her young daughter. There’s the daughter, Cosette, first seen as a girl (Isabelle Allen) being mistreated by the people meant to care for her, the Thénardiers (Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter), innkeepers who are both shameless, scummy pickpockets.
There’s Cosette as a young woman (Amanda Seyfried), after she had been rescued by Valjean and raised as his own. There’s Marius (Eddie Redmayne), a student revolutionary who falls head-over-heels in love with Cosette – and she too falls in love with him, as would be expected in any good romantic melodrama. There’s the Thénardiers’ daughter, Éponine (Samantha Barks), who’s secretly in love with Marius and yet knows deep down that it will never be requited. Incidentally, it’s because of her desperate longing that we’re treated to one of the show’s best songs, “On My Own.” Finally, there’s the leader of the student revolution, Enjolras (Aaron Tveit), a passionate young patriot whose sole driving force is to take part in Paris’ June Rebellion, which actually took place over the course of one day in 1832.
A pet peeve I’ve repeatedly voiced my opinion on are movies that exist solely for those audiences intimately familiar with the universe it inhabits. If layman audiences can’t go into such films cold and still manage to get something out of them, then they’re nothing more than cinematic in-jokes. Although Les Mis fans will feel right at home watching this film adaptation, in no small part because of special appearances by Colm Wilkinson and Frances Ruffelle, those completely unfamiliar with the musical, the novel, or any of the other films based on the novel should have no trouble getting wrapped up in the story. There are no gratuitous insider references, no unnecessary displays of fanboy pandering, no sacrificing plot or character for making only specific people happy. It stands completely on its own, which is exactly as it should be.
What is the current state of the movie musical? The success of Moulin Rouge, Chicago, and Hairspray notwithstanding, we live in a time when unwatchable garbage like Mamma Mia! earns untold millions while genuinely good efforts like The Phantom of the Opera, The Producers, and Nine are critically and commercially lambasted. This is nothing short of a tragedy. Exactly what are audiences and critics looking for, apart from what’s staring directly at them? The last thing I want is for Les Misérables to suffer the same fate as many of this generation’s movie musicals. It’s a sweeping, emotional, beautifully dramatic entertainment that isn’t afraid to make grand gestures with its music, its visuals, its characters, and its themes. We shouldn’t be afraid to embrace these kinds of films.