In The Latest Les Mis Adaptation, You Will Very Much Hear The People Sing. And You Will Love It.
Director: Tom Hooper
Writers: William Nicholson, Alain Boublil, Claude-Michel Schonberg.
Studio: Universal Pictures.
Cast: Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, Anne Hathaway, Amanda Seyfried, Eddie Redmayne, Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter.
Oscar-winning director Tom Hooper (The King's Speech) is hardly the first in Hollywood to take on Victor Hugo's 150-year-old French historical epic, Les Miserables.
In fact, there have been 15 adaptations of this classic revolution tale in Hollywood alone dating back to 1909, in addition to six TV miniseries and movies, a handful of shorts and even a couple of animated adaptations. And that's before we even begin to take into account the countless theater productions that this story has seen.
So, yes, Les Miserables, it could be argued, may be one of the most retold stories ever. Why do we need yet another?
Well, because Hooper's take is different — at least in one regard. His is the first true musical adaptation for the silver screen of the story's 30-year-old Broadway version, which is a fact Hooper very much capitalizes upon.
With Les Miserables, Hooper (working with a fantastic script from William Nicholson, who penned Gladiator) crafts a truly magnificent experience out of this tale's long-experienced stories of love, morality, revolution, regret and redemption. It takes you by storm, coming across as if it's something you've never seen before. Even when the familiar moments flicker on the screen and the music begins to fill your ears, it's like experiencing the whole thing for the first time all over again.
It helps that Hooper has in his holster a bevy of astonishing performances from his perfectly cast ensemble. And with some help from Speech cinematographer Danny Cohen, Hooper smartly highlights his players, precisely placing his camera tight and close, practically nose to nose with his actors. Throughout the film, long and uncut takes are framed quite literally right in the face of the story's emotions, allowing audiences to experience every painstaking and heart-tugging note of Claude-Michel Schonberg's iconic songbook.
Hooper and Cohen make other bold choices alternative to what we're use to seeing in costumed period dramas, too. At times, they utilize a grand scope and scale. At others, they shoot their scenes handheld and loose, following the movement of the performances as if they're happening as they unfold. No, this may not be a true live musical experience, but no matter where you sit in the movie theater, you'll not only feel like you're on stage, you'll feel like you're 19th-century France. The crew does as much as they can to transport and transcend the stage experience, having the cast — for the first time in musical film history — sing their performances live on set and captured for the final product. The result is an organic tone prevalent throughout the film.
As Anne Hathaway quietly whispers out Fantine's signature “I Dreamed A Dream,” reaching a dramatic climax of emotion, it's the actress' vocal imperfections that make it so real — so, dare I say, perfect. The same can be said for Hugh Jackman's Jean Valjean and Russell Crowe's Javert (and Eddie Redmayne's Marius and Amanda Seyfried's Cosette and so on and so forth). Don't get me wrong: These actors have clearly worked their ascots off to reach a range of vocal superiority, but it's that their director chose to let the raw emotion show through in their voices that makes the whole thing so damn good.
The long-running joke about musicals is that there's no justification for people breaking into song. For Les Miserables, where only a hand-full of sentences are actually spoken in its 157-minute runtime, you believe that the only way these people can express the emotions about their life is to sing.
Unless, of course, we're talking about the brilliant portrayal of the miscreant Thenardier by Sacha Baron Cohen. Then it's just to show off how hilarious you can be as the comedic relief in an otherwise heavy drama.
But it's all these things — the performances, the singing, the cinematography, the set pieces, etc. — working together that makes Les Miserables the kind of classic onscreen epic that we haven't seen the likes of for quite some time.
Though told and retold in various ways, words, languages, sounds and platforms over the course of its 15-decade existence, Les Miserables has never previously been an Oscar winner. (Richard Boleslawski's 1935 adaptation was nominated for four Academy Awards including Best Picture, but didn't win.)
Now, with its Academy Award-winning director Tom Hooper, its pitch-perfect and inspired ensemble cast, and its breathtaking vision for Victor Hugo's tale, Les Miserables is finally a true heavyweight, awards contender.
Quite the revolution indeed.
Rating: 8.5 out of 10 baguettes.