Musicals are among the hardest of film genres to pull off with conviction. Long gone is the heyday of the musical film, and with a few exceptions, the forms have gone their separate ways, musicals relegated to Broadway, far from the gaze of film. While there are some musical films that have been quite successful both artistically and financially in more recent years (Chicago, Sweeney Todd) the only reason they have successfully worked in a keen awareness of genre type.
The problem with musicals is that the very medium of film renders them unnecessary. People sing in a musical because emoting is difficult to express to a large, live audience. Songs are a way of letting the audience know how they feel. With the intimacy of film, it is possible to become very personal with the characters without the need for them to express anything verbally, much less in song.
With a musical like Les Misérables, which is an emotional powerhouse of a story, the transference to film would, from the outset be excessively difficult. Therein lies the problem. While Tom Hooper proved himself as an elegant director with the Oscar-winning The King’s Speech, taking on a project like Les Misérables is no easy task, and the result shows that.
The film, based on the beloved musical of the same name, in turn based on the novel, is a mutli-faceted look at love in many forms, set during a time of political unrest in France, some time after the first revolution. Spanning several years and shifting focus from character to character, it is a story tightly woven together by a series of emotionally powerful songs which fall over themselves in their hurry to introduce themes and characters.
The story focuses on Jean Valjean, a man who served 14 years in prison for stealing a loaf of bread. After a run in with God’s grace, he is given a chance at an upstanding life, and dedicates himself to this fully. Years later, he is a mayor, and his paths cross with a haunting and destitute woman, Fantine, forced into a life of misery for the sake of her child, Cosette. Jean Valjean takes over the task of raising Cosette himself, experiencing for the first time, real love for another human being.
But all is not beautifully tied up, as Valjean’s steps are dogged by Javert, the coldly obsessed inspector who is determined to see Valjean behind bars.
Time moves forward, and the country is once again on the brink of revolution. Love affairs blossom and fade against this dramatic backdrop, while Valjean continues to wrestle the ghosts of his past.
The first act of the film, focusing on Valjean’s conversion and Fantine’s suffering, is arguably the best, because the juggling of stories is relatively simple, and the acting is for the most part, stunning. Anne Hathaway’s tragic portrayal of Fantine is one of the highlights of the film, her heartbreaking rendition of “I Dreamed a Dream”, lamenting the loss of her dignity and self-worth and hope, is phenomenal all the more for being filmed live. While Hathaway’s voice is passable, her performance is so much the better for the choked back sobs and warbles. She is not striving to deliver a perfect song, but a perfectly emoted song, and the result is flawless. While there are many moments in the film where the singing seems largely unnecessary to convey emotion, Hathaway manages to be both emotionally charged and sing with absolute conviction.
The same can also be said for young Isabelle Allen, whose portrayal of child Cosette is nothing short of phenomenal. With her big blue staring eyes and sweet warble, Allen’s waifish Cosette is heartbreaking. Her pain and longing for a better life is palpable, and there is a childlike conviction to her minimal performance that is superb, and not matched by any of the adult cast. She is perfection.
Not so for either of the male leads, Valjean and Javert, portrayed by Hugh Jackman and Russell Crowe respectively. While both are seasoned actors, and the former has formidable experience in Broadway, there is a distinct lack of conviction in their performances. Valjean’s emotion is entirely hidden in lyrics and the necessity of seeing him on film wears thin- if his singing is all there is to him, then anyone else could have done it. Further disappointing Javert, who is not at all convincing as the doggedly obsessive inspector. Crowe’s performance, which could have been masterful, given his past experience, is severely crippled by his inability to sing in the Broadway style. His voice is adequate, but most of his screen-time is spent with him struggling to hit the notes. It is almost too painful to watch.
Luckily, there are those self-aware moments which make the film justified in existing. One such is the “Master of the House” sequence, one of the only humorous moments in the film, involving the conniving, hideous Thenardiers, played by Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen, perfectly at home in their trademark absurd roles, and both still fairly fresh from their stints in Sweeney Todd, fully equal to the task of the singing roles.
Later moments such as Éponine’s always-tragic character arc, admirably played by Samantha Barks; the sweet surprise of Amanda Seyfried’s voice; the visualization of the barricade; are worth the price of admission, but the second act of the film is, in general, a step down from the first.
Because of the nature of Les Misérables, there is a suspension of disbelief that is necessary for film which is not required for every musical adaption. There is almost no spoken dialogue, the story taking place in a world where every thought and conversation is expressed through song. After the first hour, this begins to wear thin, as we are bombarded with song after song. Not a problem for a stage production, where this sort of thing is expected and welcomed, but there is something uncomfortable about it in film, where the actors are already desperately attempting to emote on top of it. It does not help that Hooper’s style hones in on individual actors to further highlight their emotionality, making the experience exhausting after a while. This also begins to detract from the beauty of the film technically speaking. The elegant cinematography and set design, the attention to detail in the costumes and props, are all noteworthy and among some of the year’s best, and all are largely shoved aside for the sake of painfully intimate shots.
However, the film’s strengths, as noted, are very strong, and overall the film does what it sets out to do: introduces those unlucky enough to not see the stage production to one of the most powerful examinations of love ever set to music. There is real power in many of the performances, and while it is barely carried on the backs of the male leads, the supporting cast picks up the weight beautifully. The necessity of the film is debatable, especially given Hooper’s stylistic choices, but it is an interesting look at a broader vision of the story- a Les Misérables not bound eternally by the limitations of stage, but which can explore the vast differences between day and night, love and loss, passion and reality. It may get a little lost in itself at times, but, at the end of the day, it is as admirable an adaption as many staged ones, imperfect, but passionate.