Tom Hooper's take on the evergreen West End musical blockbuster Les Misérables tests the boundaries of how radical a film adaptation can be in approaching material that is, at least for many, very familiar. Far from delivering a safe, faithful retelling that recreates the experience of the show, the King's Speech director opts to do something quite different; he dials up the emotional intensity of the story by, quite literally, zooming in on the characters. Yes, the production has been opened up a bit, swapping small stages for a few widescreen vistas; but as the A-list cast sing their songs, there is no escaping their characters’ pain and suffering, and the effect is surprisingly powerful.
In a way Les Misérables feels like Great Expectations as told from the point of view of Magwitch (they were originally published within a couple of years of each other). But those expecting this version to be to the novel what Lionel Bart’s Oliver! was to Oliver Twist will likely be disappointed. The musical has not been radically restructured in its transition to the big screen, so the story - based on Victor Hugo's original novel - is as it was, centring on the life of former convict Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman, no stranger to stage musicals) and his attempts to redeem himself in the eyes of God after a forgiving bishop saves him from being sent back to prison. Several years later, having reinvented himself as a factory owner, his redemption is threatened by the reappearance of former prison guard turned Police Inspector Javert (Russell Crowe), who has been hunting him ever since his disappearance while on parole. Into this dilemma falls the tragic Fantine (Anne Hathaway), a young woman working in Valjean’s factory, and later on her daughter Cosette (Amanda Seyfried).
There's little point making comparisons with the stage show; this is an adaptation for a different medium after all, and anyway the majority of filmgoers won't have seen it (including this reviewer). So the question is: does it stand on its own two legs? The answer is a qualified Yes. Those averse to musicals will find nothing here to make them change their minds, especially as it’s one of those where even the dialogue is sung. But William Nicholson’s screenplay, working from the book by Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boublil, never loses focus of the story, despite the occasional plot lull. And the cast undoubtedly give it their all: Jackman and Hathaway are excellent, and though Crowe is on less certain ground, he manfully pushes on regardless.
In an apparent effort to stave off wandering attention due to a rather long running time, Hooper’s camera often swoops through the Parisian sky between songs, in a way that vaguely recalls Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge!. But when it comes to those songs, it’s a very different affair. The actor’s faces dominate the screen, telling their stories through verse with a bare minimum of distraction. It’s an approach that works more often than not; Hathaway vocally slamdunks I Dreamed a Dream, but the song’s powerful sense of youthful hope being dashed is magnified by the empty darkness lurking behind her onscreen; a visual reminder of the world she inhabits, and from which she failed to escape.
Hooper doesn’t succeed in getting other scenes to gel together quite so well. The film flips between obviously staged indoor scenes and a handful of outdoor ones; jumping from one to the other jars significantly. It might have helped if a decision had been taken to film either entirely on a stage or on location, as the end result feels uneven (tellingly, it failed to pick up either an Oscar or BAFTA nomination for editing). Even so, the strength of the source material, the performances and the intriguing approach overcome such quibbles, sweeping you up on to an emotional journey that will bring grudging tears to more than a few eyes. It’s an epic experience - one that will undoubtedly benefit the stage show’s ticket sales.
Tom Hooper's take on the evergreen West End musical blockbuster Les Misérables tests the boundaries ...