Movie Review: “Les Miserables”

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“Les Miserables,” which is probably the most popular stage musical of the second half of the twentieth century, somehow got nearly 30 years into its existence without the production of a major film adaptation. Whether it was a lull in the popularity of movie musicals, or concerns about budget or running time, every attempt at a “Les Miz” film over the years has fallen short. There was even a late 1990s version, starring Liam Neeson, which was a straight, non-musical adaptation of Victor Hugo’s novel.

But finally, the “Les Miserables” film is here, and it was worth the wait. The adaptation is faithful, beautifully rendered, expertly cast and wonderfully sung. It’s one of the best films of the year and is up there with Tim Burton’s “Sweeney Todd” among the best recent adaptations of great stage musicals.

The “Les Miz” film was directed by Tom Hooper, who previously made “The King’s Speech,” the 2010 Oscar winner for Best Picture that’s been called overrated so often that it’s actually underrated. And while there’s a serious over-reliance on close-ups, Hooper does a competent job  juggling a complex narrative and elaborate action and musical numbers.

Set in the early 19th century, the film is the story of Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman), a French peasant who has served 19 years in a prison camp after stealing a loaf of bread to feed his sister’s starving child. Paroled but unable to work, Valjean breaks parole, and is subsequently chased by policeman Javert (Russell Crowe.) Under a new identity as a prosperous businessman, Valjean makes a promise to Fantine (Anne Hathaway), a dying factory-worker-turned prostitute, to care for her daughter Cosette, who is the ward of shady innkeepers (a perfectly cast Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter.)

The second act focuses on the rebellion of 1832 (not “The French Revolution,” as the supposedly theater-savvy “Glee” ludicrously claimed in a recent episode), as Marius (Eddie Redmayne), a fighter in the doomed uprising, falls in love with a now-adult Cosette (Amanda Seyfried), while Valjean seeks redemption.

The songs- with music by Claude-Michel Schönberg and original lyrics by Alain Boublil that were translated into English by Herbert Kretzmer- are among the greatest of the musical theater canon, and the cast does them justice, from “Do You Hear the People Sing” to “On My Own” to “Bring Him Home”  (only “The Innkeeper’s Song” gets a lackluster staging.)

Anne Hathaway is barely in the movie- she has probably less than ten minutes of screen time- but she makes the most of it. Her performance of “I Dreamed a Dream”- her face dirty, her hair shorn, and shot in extreme closeup- was clearly extensively calibrated in order to win her an Oscar. And I think it probably will.

Jackman- the only major movie star who is also a Tony winner, was the only choice to play Valjean, and he acquits himself well. Even Crowe- who, 30 Odd Foot of Grunts notwithstanding, is not a professional singer- does an adequate job as Inspector Javert.

Though really, the film is one long musical number- it’s “sung through,” with only a few incidents of spoken dialogue in between songs. The production also filmed all of the actors singing live and not lip-synching, a decision certain to be popular with the theater enthusiasts in the film’s target audience. And once you see it, you’re sure to have the score in your head for days afterward.

I’ve seen the stage musical a few times over the years and consider myself a fan, although I will say I don’t know it backwards and forwards. I didn’t grow up listening to the soundtrack all the time, although I know lots of people who did.

But I went to many, many talent shows in which female friends of mine sang renditions of “On My Own” or “I Dreamed a Dream”; in high school, lots of them went on to use AOL screennames that were variations on “Cosette” and “Eponine.”

“Les Miserables” fans have been waiting for a proper film for a long time. What these filmmakers have delivered is well worth the wait.

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