Film Review: Les Misérables

British director Tom Hooper ('The King’s Speech') could be heading back to the Oscars, along with his stars Hugh Jackman and Anne Hathaway, with this remarkably affecting and resourceful screen adaptation of the popular pop opera.

It is fitting that Academy Award-winning director Tom Hooper’s ardent, epic movie musical Les Misérables, based on Cameron Mackintosh’s long-running stage production, arrives on Christmas Day. It celebrates Victor Hugo’s deeply compassionate 1862 novel of politically tumultuous 19th-century France, the renewal of the contemporary screen musical, and the redeeming pleasure of musical storytelling itself.

Hooper gambled on “doing it live,” filming the actors singing on-set, rather than the traditional method of synching their voices in post-production, and it’s paid off. There’s an immediacy and dramatic urgency to these performances seldom matched in traditional film musicals. And in Hugh Jackman, Hooper has found a Jean Valjean who sings and acts with equal brilliance. His impassioned performance, along with Anne Hathaway’s heartbreaking Fantine, stand out in this well-cast ensemble, which also features a somber (and singing!) Russell Crowe as Valjean’s nemesis, Police Inspector Javert; Amanda Seyfried and Eddie Redmayne as young lovers; and the darkly comic team of Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter as bottom-feeders Monsieur and Madame Thénardier.
The characters speak solely (and soulfully) through song, including a new one written for the movie, and Claude-Michel Schönberg’s lush score, with lyrics by Herbert Kretzmer, has never sounded better. The sung-through approach conveys the characters’ emotions more directly than spoken language, and lends a stylistic consistency to the work. It is also likely to appeal to that stubborn minority who balk at characters suddenly breaking into song (there’s no dance here).

Hooper and his ace director of photography, Danny Cohen (The King’s Speech), use cinema to its full advantage, often creating intimacy by filling the entire screen with an actor’s singing face. Whereas in the theatre a spotlight directs the audience’s attention to a solo, here we’re practically inside the character’s head. It’s strange, but effective. At other times, as in the movie’s opening sequence, they go the panoramic route, swooping in on a vast crew of convicts hauling a ship into port while the waves roll in. There we meet prisoner 24601, Valjean, who by 1815 has served 19 years of hard labor for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his starving family, and is about to be released on parole by his relentless pursuer, Javert. Valjean is soon making his way through the gloriously scenic mountains of southern France, and an emaciated but rugged Jackman (he lost 30 pounds for these scenes) is singing a stirring rendition of “Freedom Is Mine,” a real feat in this altitude.

Valjean soon discovers that his freedom is a fraud, as his parole status prevents him from gaining employment or human sympathy, until he meets a kindly bishop (Colm Wilkinson, the original Valjean in London and on Broadway) whose belief in him engenders a spiritual rebirth. The film picks up emotional intensity as it jumps to 1823 and the fate of Fantine, who after losing her job in the factory owned by Valjean (known now as Mayor Madeleine), turns to the street to support her sickly daughter, Cosette (the adorable Isabelle Allen as a child, Seyfried as an adult). As anyone who has seen the coming attractions knows, Hathaway kills “I Dreamed a Dream”; her voice and fearless performance haunt the film until she returns as a loving spirit towards the end.

Hooper deftly shifts between naturalism and a heightened theatricality throughout, presenting the major characters as complex individuals while painting the prostitutes, johns and denizens of the Thénardier house as characters straight out of Sweeney Todd, pancake makeup and all. His inventively gross staging of “Master of the House,” magnificently performed by Baron Cohen and Bonham Carter, is of a piece with his sincere depiction of Hugo’s progressive political and moral concerns. It’s impossible to leave this movie untroubled by the contemporary parallels.

As in the stage production, Les Misérables slackens a bit three-quarters in, but sails to an emotionally powerful finale. Hooper shows a sure hand navigating this impressively massive ship to port.