The most exhilarating rollercoasters are the ones that feel like they’re about to go off the rails at any second and come crashing to the ground.
An experience not too dissimilar is had sitting through Tom Hooper’s unashamedly grandiose and wholly cinematic version of the enormously popular and reverred stage musical (itself based on Victor Hugo’s 1862 novel) that begins in 1815 and culminates in the 1832 June rebellion in Paris.
Hooper certainly had his work cut out for him, if for no other reason than to deal with the pressure of meeting the heady expectations of countless thousands of theatregoers who have adored the musical since its premiere in 1985.
Despite working with a far larger canvas than he’s previously been used after The Damned United and The King’s Speech, Hooper has taken the decision not to play safe with the material and to go for it instead. It’s a brave approach and one that is vindicated throughout the film’s 158 engrossing minutes.
From the first scene, the camera (with the assistance of CGI) emerges from the sea and glides over a storm-ravaged ship before coming to rest (momentarily) on the soon-to-be ex-convict Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman), part of a chain gang being forced to pull the vessel into dry dock. The camera then propels away to prison guard-turned policeman Javert (Russell Crowe), who makes it his life’s mission to hunt down Valjean after the former prisoner breaks parole.
These first moments set the tone for what is to follow. This is no staid or stagey adaptation; Hooper wants you to know you’re watching a movie.
Just as the director seems to love attaching his camera to a bungy cord, so too does he delight in using that other device not available to a theatre production – the close up. When a scene calls for a confrontation or a big display of emotion, Hooper gets in tight, refusing to let go until every last drop of despair, grief, elation or anger is wrung out.
This is most affectingly handled in the scenes with factory worker Fantine (Anne Hathaway), who’s thrown on the street after she’s discovered sending money to her illegitimate daughter Cosette and desperately turns to prostitution to support her child. As Hathaway sings I Dreamed A Dream, Hooper locks the camera in close on her anguished, emaciated face in one continuous, bravura take.
The centrepiece of the film, it’s Hathaway’s Oscar-bait moment and she nails it. She gives it absolutely everything and delivers a shattering, show-stopping performance that runs the gamut from quiet grief to dead-eyed resignation that breaks the heart. If her delivery of the line “Life has killed the dream I dreamed” doesn’t have you welling up, nothing will.
There’s often a dishonesty in musicals as the vocals we hear are actually recorded in post-production. This may result in a cleaner sound, but the performances can lose their authenticity. Another brave move Hooper made was to have his cast sing live on set, a decision that pays off handsomely and helps to draw out raw and believable turns from his fantastic ensemble. When the cast perform Do You Hear The People Sing?, in this instance you really can.
Previously best known for looking angry and chewing on a cigar as Wolverine, Jackman gives the performance of a lifetime as Valjean, who takes Cosette (Amanda Seyfried) into his care away from the unscrupulous Thénardiers (Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter) and raises her as his own as a promise to Fantine – an act borne out of kindness and a quest for redemption.
Jackman’s experience in musical theatre is brought to bear, most prominently during his hugely impressive solo numbers Valjean’s Soliloquy, Bring Him Home and Suddenly. He’s matched by the brilliant Hathaway, whose selfless, tragic Fantine is so angelic as to give Mother Teresa a run for her money.
Equally impressive is Eddie Redmayne in what is sure to be a star-making turn as Marius, the idealistic student revolutionary who turns his back on his privileged upbringing to lead the rebellion, falling for Cosette in the process. Redmayne brings an intensity to the role that has you rooting for him and his rendition of the sorrowful Empty Chairs at Empty Tables is spine-tingling.
Crowe doesn’t have the singing chops of the others and it shows. There’s no question he gives it his all as the devoutly law-upholding Javert, but the role makes demands on him that he is unable to meet.
Hooper goes to town with the lighter moments involving the Thénardiers and Cohen’s and Carter’s outrageously colourful performances nicely counterpoint all that tragedy and suffering.
Special mention must go to Melanie Ann Oliver’s and Chris Dickens’ superb editing. Despite being over two-and-a-half hours, it moves along at a cracking pace, with the musical numbers bleeding into each other and cut in such a way as to leave you breathless.
Les Misérables at times almost overwhelms itself with its own bombasity, but Hooper somehow keeps the show on the road and delivers an epic spectacle on such a grandiose scale as to leave you exhausted. This is one rollercoaster ride you won’t want to get off.