Transforming a hit musical into a movie is never simple, even if the show is as beloved as “Les Misérables.” Producer Cameron Mackintosh tried in the late 1980s, after Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boublil’s musical version of the classic 1862 Victor Hugo novel became a massive hit in London and on Broadway. But the cameras didn’t start rolling until last March, 27 years after “Les Miz” first hit the London stage.
Hard to say how an earlier “Les Miz” movie might have worked out, but for fans, director Tom Hooper’s interpretation of a theater classic, which opens Christmas Day, is worth the wait.
The movie is visually stunning, expansive yet intimate. It’s true to the style and spirit of the musical in telling the story of Jean Valjean, the hero who transforms his life after 19 years of hard labor for stealing a loaf of bread. William Nicholson (“Shadowlands,” “Gladiator”) gets credit for the screenplay along with Herbert Kretzmer, who transformed Boublil’s original French lyrics into the now-familiar English ones. There’s even a new song, “Suddenly,” sung by Valjean to reflect his altered life after he rescues the waif Cosette.
The story of Valjean and the socio-political turmoil of early 19th century France is told through song. Star Hugh Jackman, Oscar winner Russell Crowe as his dogged pursuer Javert and the other actors have little or no spoken dialogue. One song leads into the next, more in the style of an opera than a musical. And as on stage, the actors sing the music live.
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“Les Miz” evokes the grandeur and grittiness of France from Valjean’s release in 1815 to the aftermath of the student rebellion of 1832. The opening sequence is a stunner, with dozens of men singing “Look Down” as they trudge through frigid water to haul a massive ship into dry dock. The imperious Javert (Crowe) hands a worn-out Valjean (Jackman) paperwork granting him freedom, but in truth he’s branded for life.
The story becomes an extended cat-and-mouse chase once Valjean breaks his parole and Javert begins his deadly pursuit. Javert, the “righteous” man, follows the letter of the law (and Valjean) to extremes; Valjean, transformed after an act of mercy by the Bishop of Digne (Colm Wilkinson, the original stage Valjean), has become a righteous, compassionate man.
His life intersects with myriad others throughout “Les Miz.” Fantine (a radiant and heartbreaking Anne Hathaway), who toils to support her illegitimate daughter Cosette (Isabelle Allen), sheds her dignity bit by bit, finally turning to prostitution. Valjean assures the dying woman he’ll look after her daughter, and after retrieving Cosette from the clutches of abusive innkeepers Monsieur and Madame Thénardier (a grime-covered Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter), he raises the little girl as his own.
Nine years later, as the rebellion is brewing in a majestic Paris, a love triangle forms. Éponine (earthy newcomer Samantha Barks), the Thénardiers’ once-pampered daughter, is mad for the handsome student Marius (Eddie Redmayne). But he falls instantly in love with the grown Cosette (Amanda Seyfried), who is equally smitten. Marius begins using Éponine as a go-between, and the “Heart Full of Love” trio sung by Seyfried, Redmayne and Barks is exquisitely beautiful.
The climactic battle at the students’ hodgepodge barricade is bloody and shocking. Closeups are part of the difference, as we watch the predictable results of soldiers mowing down the rag-tag band and their leader Enjolras (Aaron Tveit). The sad fate of plucky little Gavroche (Daniel Huttlestone) becomes almost unbearable.
Jackman is almost wizened-looking yet convincing as Valjean, hitting the right acting notes. He has plenty of stage singing experience, but he’s best when he sings full out, as he does on the confessional “Who Am I?” The softer, prayerful passages of “Bring Him Home” aren’t nearly as effective. Musically, Valjean demands an operatic strength and range that the appealing Jackman doesn’t possess. Likewise Crowe, who has fronted his own rock band, brings a strong baritone to Javert’s “Stars and Soliloquy,” but his acting trumps his singing.
Hooper has honored a much-loved stage musical while opening it up visually and casting it with names that should help sell tickets. “Les Miz” purists may not be happy, and those who don’t dig classics and/or musicals won’t go. But the director delivers an engaging version of a sweeping epic, an enduring tale of romance, sacrifice and heroism.