Hugh Jackman as Jean Valjean
Russell Crowe as Javert
Anne Hathaway as Fantine
Eddie Redmayne as Marius
Amanda Seyfried as Cosette
Helena Bonham Carter as Madame Thénardier
Sacha Baron Cohen as Thénardier
Samantha Barks as Éponine
Isabelle Allen as Young Cosette
Aaron Tveit as Enjolras
Colm Wilkinson as Bishop of Digne
Daniel Huttlestone as Gavroche
Patrick Godfrey as Gillnormande
Marc Pickering as Montparnasse
George Blagden as Grantaire
Bertie Carvel as Bamatabois
Alistair Brammer as Jean Prouvaire
Fra Fee as Courfeyrac
Natalya Angel Wallace as Young Eponine
Killian Donnelly as Combeferre
Directed by Tom Hooper
Victor Hugo’s 19th Century epic set during the French Revolution was first adapted into a stage musical during the ’80s and it quickly became a classic period musical on par with “Sweeney Todd” and “Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Phantom of the Opera,” which preceded and followed it, respectively. Leave it to “The King’s Speech” director Tom Hooper to take it on as his next project after winning the Oscar and creating a movie musical that can hold its own against the likes of “Cabaret” and “Camelot.”
This is the story of two lives intertwined over the course of decades as their paths cross repeatedly and often coincidentally, as the film opens with a huge set piece of hundreds of prison convicts pulling a large ship into a dock. Unrecognizable at first, Hugh Jackman’s Jean Val-Jean, prisoner #24601, has been incarcerated for 19 years, but we meet him just as he’s been given his parole by his jailer Javert, played by Russell Crowe. From the second we meet them, there’s clear animosity between them, which will grow over the course of the film.
We cut forward eight years later and we meet Anne Hathaway’s Fantine, a seamstress trying to earn a wage to support her daughter Cosette, who falls upon hard times. Valjean has somehow become major of this French town and he reencounters Javert while trying to protect her.
Calling “Les Mis” a “musical” is a bit of a misnomer because this is straight opera with all dialogue being sung over two-and-a-half hours of straight music, going directly from one number to the next. Many of the themes and melodies are reprised, which may make it feel repetitive to anyone who knows music, but fans of the musical will be on the edge of their seat awaiting the familiar numbers.
As cliché as it may be, Jean Valjean is a role Hugh Jackman was born to play, his voice a perfect tenor, bringing powerful emotions to every scene. Jackman has never had a chance to show off what he could do on this level. Russell Crowe takes a little more time to find his footing, maybe since he doesn’t seem as comfortable with the sung dialogue, but he has two numbers that are just as powerful as anything by the other actors.
As fans of the musical might expect, the real piece de resistance is when Hathaway sings “I Dreamed a Dream,” one of those showstopping moments on par with Jennifer Hudson singing “I Am Telling You” in “Dreamgirls.” It only takes place a half hour into the movie, but in the ten minutes of watching what Fantine must endure to survive after losing her job, it’s beyond heartbreaking and if the song doesn’t bring you to tears, you’re probably not human.
The next time the story jumps forward, we’re in Paris and Cosette has grown into a lovely young woman, played by Amanda Seyfried, and the focus shifts to the younger cast as the French Revolution has kicked into high gear and a band of students are ready to take action against their military oppressors. This is where the younger cast takes over with Eddie Redmayne cutting a dashing figure as a young soldier who falls for Cosette despite his friend Éponine being smitten with him. The latter is played by Samantha Barks, a bit of a ringer, having already played the role of on stage, but the fact Redmayne can hold his own in their numbers together is one of the film’s many astounding feats.
Even so, the film does take a slight dip in this middle section when Jackman’s Valjean takes on a smaller role, giving time to introduce these new characters and their ongoing love triangle before things pick up with the military conflict on the barrier that plays such a huge part of the stage production. Despite the time period, it’s hard not to relate to some of the story’s many layers and how they reflect what we’re seeing on every day on the news.
What’s great about the way Tom Hooper transitions the musical to film is that from the very beginning, he creates an immense scale to the film just by having Valjean against the expansive landscape, so when the film moves onto the interior sets, we don’t feel as if we’re just watching a filmed stage musical. And yet, Hooper also uses the close-up to make sure the camera is right on each actor’s face during their key moments, something that could never be experienced on stage.
It’s a long film at two-and-a-half hours, but it’s the type of experience that really pulls you into it and never lets you go, especially if you’re a fan of the original musical and know the story with each actor in the ensemble being given a moment of the spotlight and delivering a suitably breathtaking performance, from the actress playing the younger Cosette to Daniel Huttlestone’s Gavroche, the ragamuffin giving running commentary for the second act, and the good-looking Aaron Tveit as the revolutionary Enjolras.
Fortunately, there’s some welcome comedy in the form of Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter, reunited from Tim Burton’s “Sweeney Todd,” as a conman innkeeper and his wife, who have been put in charge of Cosette and who return a few times. There are so many great moments though, including Jackman doing a scene opposite Colm Wilkinson, the originator of the Valjean role, and the new song “Suddenly,” written by the original composers, which beautifully transitions into the second act.
Every aspect of the production design, the make-up and the musical orchestrations are exemplary, but it’s just as amazing an achievement on Hooper’s part that he could create such a solid ensemble from such a disparate mix of stage and film actors.
The Bottom Line:
Tom Hooper has created an unprecedented musical experience, a powerful and unforgettable showstopper of a film. If you like the original musical, you’re likely to love the movie’s way of telling the story on a larger scale, although like most musicals, not everyone will appreciate it as much as those already in love with it.