Although Les Misérables has enjoyed 17 years of success on various stages, coming to the big screen from an 1862 Victor Hugo novel turned French concept album adapted into a musical hit in the West End and Broadway, I never saw the show. I never even came near enough to it to know the story, besides the inference that it chronicled a handful of unhappy people. From a purely cinematic perspective, though, Les Mis was made for the movies.
Following a cadre of France’s poorest classes in the 19th century, the musical is a big story that demands to be filmed. Director Tom Hooper’s Les Mis opens in a gulp with an underwater view of a tattered French flag. We’re in Toulon in 1815, close enough to the French Revolution to still feel the salt rubbed into the wounds of the poor.
The instruments – a wall of horns and big bass drums – crash in like a wave. Above water, rows of prisoners gripping rope in two fistfuls look like puny ants when shot from above. But the camera does not shy away from the prisoners either.
The camera agilely sweeps down to a slanted shot of one prisoner, Jean Valjean, an incredibly malleable Hugh Jackman who starts the movie as an emaciated criminal and becomes a robust 50-year-old who saves another man’s life. As the first scene ends, a screen-filling wooden ship capsizes as the prisoners struggle to haul it in to dock. I can’t imagine a big enough stage to fit this scene besides the silver screen.
Valjean has been imprisoned for 20 years for stealing a loaf of bread. He gets a ticket of release in the first scene and tries to reform his life in the fragile France that exists after their revolution. He finds reform challenging when Javert (Russell Crowe), a police inspector who takes the law to the letter, puts him on parole as “a dangerous man.”
Javert plays a vindictive cat to Valjean’s unwilling mouse as he chases the “dangerous man” through the movie. Russell Crowe doesn’t create Javert as a passionate villain, reminiscent of Crowe’s phone-throwing shenanigans, but he does have a consistent voice that plays up the conflict Javert feels about his identity and the validity of his cause.
Jackman attracts the camera onscreen. He sings “What Have I Done?” in a church’s corridor as the camera swings around him and captures him in some pointedly framed oblique shots.
While Les Mis is hugely cinematic, why make this movie now, after 17 years of success on the stage? The show’s iconic song, “I Dreamed a Dream,” goes a long way to answer that question. Fantine (Anne Hathaway), a woman with a bastard daughter who’s forced from her factory job, sings, “Life has killed a dream I dreamed.” In the slow recovery from 2008’s great recession, many in the audience can relate.
Anne Hathaway wanted to delve so deeply into the depressed mind of Fantine that she actually banished her new husband from location in London because he was making her too happy. Hathaway said she thought it would be selfish to sing the pretty version of the song, so she kept herself poorly nourished and in a dark mental place leading up to filming “I Dreamed a Dream,” in one three-minute take, live for the camera. The scene is scarcely lit, letting Hathaway’s gaunt face ebb out of the shadows of the shipyard that has become Fantine’s haunt as a newly minted prostitute. You hear a broken woman crying out the song.
Hathaway certainly makes her mark in Les Mis, creating what is sure to be a classic interpretation of Fantine in the 20 minutes before her character dies. But another actor to watch is the young Eddie Redmayne, who gained notice for his supporting role in “My Week with Marilyn.” He plays Marius, who joins the student-led movement resulting from rising class tensions. Redmayne’s nice speckling of freckles in his close-up shots makes up for the distracting shake of his chin in an overdone vibrato. With his fellow rebels, Redmayne sings, “Do you hear the people sing, singing the song of angry men? It is the music of a people who will not be slaves again!”
The filmed version of Les Mis succeeds in that narrative with flawless casting. Other standouts include Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen as the innkeepers the Thénardiers. Carter plays a Madame Thénardier like her Bellatrix Lestrange gone so mad she’s comic. She hits a playful chemistry with Cohen, the master of disguise, in “Master of the House.”
The solos are often shot in close-up, which is good news for Chris Lyons, the special effects technician responsible for designing the teeth in the movie. Lyons worked wonders with synthetic teeth, made horrible in the mouths of the miserable. Teeth are shot wisely in the movie as well to show a difference in status. The poor people had brown teeth, crooked and chipped while the bourgeois got even teeth, if still browned from the 19th century’s general lack of dental hygiene. From the French Revolution to the Paris Uprising of 1832, Les Mis essentially portrays a people made restless by class and economic crisis.
The world now is made restless by class and economic crisis.