(out of 5)
The stage musical that has been taking audiences around the world by storm for more than twenty years is finally given its due in a big-screen treatment, and the result is flawed but highly satisfying. Writers Claude-Michel Schonberg and Alain Boublil (along with Herbert Kreztmer, who translated the French lyrics from the original concept album) did the unthinkable when they put a score to the narrative of Victor Hugo’s mammoth tragic novel: rarely had a stage musical dealt with such a grandly heavy theme before, and almost never had it done so in a way that did not mitigate the depth of the drama (I’m looking at you, Kiss of the Spider Woman) but also provided plenty of gorgeous music to please the ear. The show also condensed the giant plot of Hugo’s novel without sacrificing its poignancy, which is not fully accomplished in the film: so many corners are cut that certain emotional revelations fail to land (Hugh Jackman‘s Jean Valjean takes one look at Eddie Redmayne‘s Marius and within seconds decides he is worthy of singing “Bring Him Home”?). It begins when Valjean is released from prison, abandons his parole and, following an act of rare kindness by a priest (Colm Wilkinson, who played the lead on stage many moons ago) decides to turn his life around. Years later, he is the mayor of a small French town but is still haunted by the pursuit of the evil Javert (Russell Crowe) who is determined to get him back in the stocks. Along the way he also encounters the tragic Fantine (Anne Hathaway), a desperate single mother whose care of her daughter Cosette brings her to ruin but inspires Valjean to take over care of the lass from the amoral innkeepers (Helena Bonham Carter, Sacha Baron Cohen) who have been raising her. Years later there is a student revolution that Cosette gets involved in because of her love of Marius and then things get a little muddled: director Tom Hooper paints the politics of the story with a very broad brush and relegates “Friends of the ABC” riots to vague “assume the young people are the good guys” execution (a brief title card informing us that the French revolution hasn’t made enough of a difference doesn’t quite cover the need for context here). Thankfully, what is good about this film far outweighs what is bad: Jackman’s performance in the lead is so extraordinary that it comes at the cost of making less impressive co-stars seem even more so. He tells his story in song as if this is how he regularly expresses himself: the combination of stage experience and film stardom for the last decade have definitely paid off in his most masterful performance yet (this applies even in the moments when his vocals aren’t stellar; if “Bring Him Home” is too high for you, Hugh, just tell them). His precise skill only makes it that much more painful to look at Crowe’s dead eyes and pained expression as his ineffective nemesis, a wooden performance that is constantly stilted by his inability to decide if he thinks he can actually sing or not. Hathaway turns in a surprisingly lovely performance, up to Jackman’s level of emotional availability in her few scenes, highly unlikely to leave a dry eye in the house. Hooper downplays operatic prowess in favour of vocal acting by having his actors sing live throughout the entire film; this style of naturalistic singing, which would be hell to bear on the stage, works in the film’s favour and prevents the warbling from ever becoming tiresome or stagy (for contrast look at Samantha Barks, reprising her stage role, who does beautiful work with her singing as Eponine but, in keeping her theatrical poise, fails to resonate emotionally). Amanda Seyfried‘s Cosette sounds like a tinny recording on an old Vitaphone record, and she and Redmayne do not strike up much sympathy between them, but does it really matter when the music is this beautiful? Boublil and Schonberg’s score is so chock full of unforgettable melodies, and its Wagnerian perfection such a pleasure to listen to, that all complaints above are a petty matter in the face of what is pulled off here. To be fair, however, the best adaptation of Hugo’s novel is still the 1934 Raymond Bernard version with Harry Bauer.
Directed by Tom Hooper
Cinematography by Danny Cohen
Production Design by Eve Stewart
Costume Design by Paco Delgado