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“Les Miserables”

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“Les Misérables”
Sarah Whitten

Now, I am going to be honest and say right away that “Les Misérables” is one of my absolute favorite Broadway musicals, having seen it almost a dozen times. It stems from the arduously long novel by Victor Hugo (which I have also read) and recently hit theatres as a movie-musical. So, going into the film I had a very high set of standards and expectations. In recent years, Hollywood has attempted to revitalize “the musical” with adaptations of shows such as “Phantom of the Opera”, “Chicago”, and “Rock of Ages”. Several have garnered decent audience recognition and even critical acclaim, but failed to really capture the same nature of the play.

“Les Misérables”, under the directorship of Tom Hooper, set out to reimagine this new Hollywood musical. Instead of pre-recorded tracks, Hooper insisted that the cast sing their songs live, on camera, during the shoot. It is a brilliant idea – no longer will the audience sit in the theatre and watch as actors attempt to lip-sync to playback. The falsity and artificiality seen in previous films is completely stripped away and instead, the audience is given a pure, raw, emotional film. Instead of having actors make their acting choices three months prior to shooting in a studio, they were able to be in the moment and just act.

The movie was adapted almost directly from the Broadway show, with a few plot swaps and a new original song thrown in to help bridge part of the first act into the second act. The film follows Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) as he journeys from slavery to redemption over the course of several decades, all while being chased through 19th century France by an obsessive Inspector Javert (Russell Crowe).  A fair warning going into this film, it is called “Les Misérables” which translates to “The Miserables” so be aware that misfortune comes to many if not all of the characters.

After being freed from his chain-gang, Valjean becomes the manager of a factory and is introduced to a woman named Fantine (Anne Hathaway). Fantine has fallen down on her luck, having been fired from her job at Valjean’s factory, and has taken to prostitution in order to pay for her young child, Cossette, who is living with an innkeeper and his wife. Hathaway is an absolute dream in this role. Her rendition of “I Dreamed a Dream” is haunting, raw, and mesmerizing. There is nothing elegant about her performance; it is pure grit and desperation as she sings about lost love and the inevitability of her own death. There is no wonder as to why she garnered an Oscar nomination for her performance in this film.

The Thénardiers, however, are a different story entirely. Arguably one of the most iconic numbers from “Les Misérables” is that of the Innkeeper (Sasha Baron Cohen) and his wife (Helena Bonham Carter) in “Master of the House.” However, the film’s rendition takes a step away from the beaten path and starts to run away. I am usually a fan of taking material and making it your own, but Cohen’s performance is flat, lifeless, and crude – and not in the fun way. “Master of the House” is supposed to be a fun, lively song – one of the rare joyous moments in the play – and somehow, it is the most lackluster number in the entire film.

Russell Crowe steps into the role of Inspector Javert, a tragic and misguided character that is classified, for all intents and purposes, as “the villain”. He is the antagonist to Valjean and his foil. Crowe has big footsteps to fill in this role. The deep, sultry voices of Phillip Quast and Norm Lewis are what is expected and is not quite what the audience gets. Crowe has a decent voice; however, he often gets swallowed up by the voices of his co-stars in duets and company numbers. Alone, singing “Stars,” Crowe absolutely shines. There is no doubt that he is a formidable actor and as he trots along the edge of a precipice thousands of feet above ground he is absolutely captivating.

Hugh Jackman is no stranger to Broadway, having earned himself multiple Tony Awards and several Tony Nominations. He is spectacular in the role of Jean Valjean, transforming from downtrodden beggar to rich socialite while still keeping a stoic aggression to his demeanor. Valjean is the keystone of this film and Jackman definitely lives up to expectation.

A subplot of “Les Misérables” revolves around Cossette (Amanda Seyfried), Valjean’s ward, a local Parisian boy Marius (Eddie Redmayne), and the daughter of the Thénardiers, Eponine (Samantha Barks). Cossette and Marius fall in love during a student revolution much to the dismay of Eponine who has pined for Marius for many years. Seyfried, who lent her voice to Sophie from “Mamma Mia”, has a delicate voice, clear and beautiful. Redmayne has a grittier tone to his voice, but has an incredible sensitivity and resonance. His rendition of “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables” is nothing short of spectacular.

Barks, who held the role of Eponine in the West End of London, brings life to the devastated Eponine. Her big solo, “On My Own,” is dark, haunting, and unforgettable. She has an incredible vulnerability and rawness as she sings about losing the love of her life to Cossette. It is another standout moment within the film.

Ultimately, “Les Misérables” is an incredible piece of film-making. It has a spectacular cast, an incredible score, and has been expertly captured on film. The cinematography, costuming, and production is gritty, evocative, and stunning. The film has secured eight Oscar nominations, including best picture. It has also garnered nine Bafta nominations and took home three Golden Globes.