Since its first performance on Broadway, the musical Les Misérables has been associated with a sense of grandeur and emotional depth. The modern entertainment industry rarely produces work at such a high level. Les Mis has since become a global spectacle with a massive fan base, and on Dec. 25, that spectacle was brought to the big screen. The nearly three hour-long film is directed by Tom Hooper, whose previous credits include the Oscar-winning The King’s Speech. Advertised as a “musical phenomenon,” Les Misérables boasts a cast of all-stars and a soundtrack that continues until the credits role.
The story takes place in 19th century France, centering on the life of Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman, X-Men), a convict seeking to elude his captors in the years following the French Revolution. At the onset of the film, Valjean, imprisoned 19 years for stealing a loaf of bread, is finally released, only to break his parole soon after and begin a life on the run. Pursuing him is police inspector Javert (Russell Crowe, Gladiator), a man obsessed with maintaining law and order within French society. What follows is a game of cat and mouse that extends across decades, during which Valjean encounters Fantine (Anne Hathaway, The Dark Knight Rises), a poor French woman who is forced to turn to prostitution to support her child, a girl who Valjean eventually agrees to raise as his own. As the years pass, Valjean gets caught up in the war between French revolutionaries and the government they seek to supplant. This forces him to choose between running from his fate or confronting it head-on. Supporting cast members include Amanda Seyfried (Mean Girls) and Helena Bonham Carter (the Harry Potter series).
In recent years, the musical has become a major genre within the film industry, with many musical films being met with both financial success and critical acclaim from the modern American audience. Therefore, it is no wonder that Les Misérables was released as the major blockbuster of the Christmas season. And as far as acting is concerned, the film does not disappoint. Both Jackman and Crowe exude confidence and experience, imbuing their characters with strength and stage presence and ultimately becoming well-matched foils for each other. However, it is Hathaway who truly steals the show. Her show-stopping performance of “I Dreamed a Dream” has been lauded by critics as nothing short of Oscar-worthy, and the raw emotion that she portrays within her character becomes the backbone of the entire film. In addition to these main players, each member of the supporting cast displays the talent and depth necessary to keep the musical alive and on its feet. This gives the film a sense of completeness and stability.
While outstanding, Les Misérables does contain a few faults, the most obvious of which is the music itself. Every line of dialogue in the film is sung in some form or another, and, in short, while each member of the cast gives a commendable acting performance, some are not so superb when it comes to singing. Crowe in particular cannot reach the level of singing ability maintained by his fellow cast members. This leaves audience members a bit underwhelmed to say the least.
Additionally, director Hooper’s creative choice to have the actors sing live in front of the cameras, rather than add voice dubs later, has its own list of pros and cons. The film is given a level of authenticity and originality that helps it to stand out from the crowd of other Les Mis renditions, but the sound quality is a bit awkward and muffled at points, making it difficult to hear some of what is being said.
Overall, the music in the film is good with a few moments of greatness, and it will undoubtedly live up to the expectations of diehard Les Mis fans. But for those viewers who are less than enthusiastic about non-stop singing, this film may not resonate quite as much.