Review: LES MISÉRABLES

By Laurie Coker

Rating: B+

I’ve seen the musical Les Miserables four times, twice in London, once in New York City and in a well-done high school production  at the school where I teach. I also saw the non-musical version in film starring Liam Neeson back in 1998. I read its source material, Victor Hugo’s colossal 1862 novel, decades ago, but much prefer watching it. Tom Hooper, who gave us the absolutely wonderful King’s Speech, takes on a much loftier production with the immense (even on stage) Les Miserables. And he does so monumentally.

From the onset, Hooper’s set are bigger, bolder, and more brash than even those of the stage production, perhaps only because set designers for musicals have such limited space or those set designers might brave bigger. Were they able, I think they might go all Tom Hooper on stage. From its opening sequence to its finale, Hooper’s telling of Jean Valjean’s (Hugh Jackman) release from prison (after stealing a morsel of bread), to the final song and all between, Hooper goes HUGE – huge actors, huge sets, huge characters and surprisingly huge voices.

Vajean, with Inspector Javer (Russell Crow) constantly on his heels, leaves prison determined to better his life and he does, but a reckless manager in his factory mercilessly causes the shame and subsequent death of beautiful Fantine (Anne Hathaway), who works desperately to send money to her daughter, Cosette (Amanda Seyfried). Once Valjean discovers his company’s role in Fantine’s downfall, he seeks out the child, “buys” her freedom from two unsavory foster parents (Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen) and makes it his life effort to protect her and raise her well and that he does until his past, war and yes, Javer catch up to him.

I saw Jackman in The boy From Oz on Broadway and know he can sing, and he give us an incredible performance here and kudos to his makeup person for changing him impressively throughout – he is barely recognizable at first. Pretty, coquettish Seyfried, too, has belted out the tunes in other productions. Notably, a good deal of the cast comes from singing and Broadway backgrounds, like Samantha Barks who plays Éponine, Cosette’s foster sister, but Hathaway and Crowe surprise with passionate (far from perfect in Crowe’s case) vocal performances.  Le Miserables tells a story of sorrow, pain, loss, misery and sadness and Hooper’s production pulls out the tears, playing emotionally at every turn as is the case with the source material and the musical. Still, the story truly isn’t big at all, not compared to the presentation of it here and on stage. Hooper play it extremely wise having his cast sing live on camera and not in some recording studio. The intimacy of this choice is noteworthy.

To be certain, Hooper’s production is not without faults. As stated the story is slight while the music is not, and thankfully, these memorable, passionately delivered songs fill the theatre and resonate the characters’ feelings even as we tire of the deep gloominess of the entire tale. Barks is far underused with her character cut to nearly nothing, compared to what I remember in the stage production. Éponine deserves far more time and attention. She is, after all, dealt an awful hand, for treating Cosette badly and this aspect of the story is all but lost. Certainly, Éponine, parent a dealt their due, too.

Hooper does make wonderful use of his cast and never scrimps on making a giant showing with key scenes – the people’s struggle and subsequent face off against the government, Javer’s life wasted chasing a man who did nothing really bad and Fantine’s (especially as portrayed by Hathaway) dismal sinking into the darkness of desperation and depravity. I also feel inclined to praise Bonham Carter and Baron Cohen (who I have no use for in previous films), since they do a delightful job playing Madam Thénardier and Thénardier, the trashy, unsavory keepers of Cosette. They rise to the occasion and provide some much needed humor in an otherwise terrifically depressing affair.

As far as award-winning musicals taken to film, Les Miserables (rated PG-13) stands strong. Could Hooper have done it better? I seriously doubt it, since the weakness falls mainly the to the story itself. It is after all a “production” in the truest sense of the word and Hooper goes gargantuan. I am placing a B+ in my grade book. I liked it and I’ve experienced it in every way possible.

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