I enjoy musicals. I have attended several performances of various musicals, and I have also participated in several musicals. That being said, Les Misérables is not a musical that I was familiar with at all aside from the iconic “I Dreamed a Dream” (thank you, Susan Boyle). With all of the positive hype that the movie version was getting, I was prepared to dislike it…not that I wanted to or expected to, but I just embraced the possibility of really not enjoying this film. Thankfully, just the opposite occurred…Les Misérables is one of the most powerful films I’ve ever seen.
Based on Victor Hugo’s 1862 French novel, this film tells the story of Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman), a man who just finished serving 19 years in prison for stealing a loaf of bread to provide for his sister and her children. Upon release, the homeless ex-convict seeks shelter at a local church, where he is taken care of by the bishop (played by Colm Wilkinson, the originator of the role of Jean Valjean in the original Broadway production). Despite the bishop’s kindness, Valjean steals silver with the intent of selling it for money, but he’s caught and returned to the church. The bishop, however, tells the authorities that the silver was a gift, even giving Valjean more than he initially stole. It is this act of kindness that turns Valjean’s life around. The rest of the film follows him as he avoids his past and strives to live an honest life and to help others. This is the basis of the story, but there is much more that I’ll leave to you to discover when you watch the film for yourself.
Though Valjean is the main character and Hugh Jackman does a brilliant job with the role, there are other characters of note: Anne Hathaway as Fantine, a woman who struggles to provide for her child, gives an incredible performance and sings a beautiful rendition of “I Dreamed a Dream” that will leave you in tears. I was also impressed with Samantha Barks as Éponine, the daughter of two mischievous inn owners (played amusingly by Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter), who managed to pull at my heartstrings from the very first moment she appeared on screen. Also worth mentioning are Eddie Redmayne as Marius, Amanda Seyfried as Cosette, and Aaron Tveit as Enjolras.
The film as a whole is simultaneously gorgeous and grungy; it switches back and forth between the two when appropriate. The period setting of the film is well-done and quite believable. The most fantastic part of this film, though, is the live singing. In case you weren’t aware, the actors in this film did all of the singing that you hear in the film live on-set…the first film to ever do so, and it’s amazing. As a performer myself, I can attest to the fact that a live performance of a song carries much more raw emotion and feeling than a recording ever could, and it certainly shows in this film. We see everything from the anguish felt by Fantine as she struggles to understand why her life has become so miserable, to the despair that Valjean feels as he considers the possibility of losing Cosette to someone else, to the conflict felt by Javert as he struggles to justify the difference between his morals and his civil responsibility (though, I’ll admit, Crowe’s singing leaves much to be desired). If this film hadn’t been recorded in this way, not even half of the emotion would have been present because only so much can be expressed when lip-syncing.
It was the combination of the emotional live singing and the themes of forgiveness, the love of God, the love of others, and social injustice that made this film so powerful. I wasn’t sure what to expect from this film, despite the fact that it was getting rave reviews from most of my friends, but I walked away extremely satisfied…this may just be my favorite musical film of all time. The direction is fantastic, the acting is spot-on, the cinematography is beautiful, and (most of) the singing is top-notch. Les Misérables has set a new standard for the musical film.
Rating: 5 (out of 5)
MPAA: PG-13 – for suggestive and sexual material, violence and thematic elements