We probably shouldn't be covering a splashy musical like Les Miserables on this site, but considering that the three leads are Wolverine, Catwoman and Jor-El, we hope you'll give us a pass. Also, it's the best picture of any sort this year. That means a tough sell for a cynical crowd, as well as for critics who might consider it too middlebrow to make for serious art. But in point of fact, Les Miserables challenges genre conventions more than any other film this year save perhaps The Dark Knight Rises; certainly more than your average pretentious art-house darling. It's big, it's bold and it’s unashamed to wear its emotions on its sleeve. It dares you to mock it, then hurls your sarcasm back in your face. If you're not careful, it will sweep you right off your feet: leaving you drained, stunned and more than a little moved.
Certainly, the story has stood the test of time, and in these days of the 99 percenters, its message feels more appropriate than ever. It delivers a 19th century Paris filled with the persecuted and downtrodden, notably Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) who stole a loaf of bread as a young man and spends the rest of his life living it down. Freed from prison after 20 years, he receives the god king of second chances from a forgiving priest who tasks him to do right by it. He largely does – becoming a prosperous business owner and politician with a record for charitable good works -- though his one notable failure demands a serious bill come due. After being wrongfully fired from his factory, young mother Fantine (Anne Hathaway) turns to prostitution to feed her distant daughter Cosette (Isabelle Allen first, later Amanda Seyfried). Valjean learns of the mistake too late, then vows to atone by raising Cosette as his own. He does all of this while avoiding the relentless Inspector Javert (Russell Crowe), who views Valjean's freedom as a personal affront.
Victor Hugo’s original novel has held up well enough to support dozens of incarnations, and the overarching class tensions surrounding the uprising of 1832 that he depicted seemingly haven’t changed at all. The rich live by different rules, while the poor suffer agonizing indignities just to survive. Director Tom Hooper paints the scene in broad but compelling strokes, unafraid to use the music and lyrics to push our emotional buttons. The big stars help, since we know their faces so well and can infer so much just by their personas. Jackman has a lengthy past in musical theater, and feels completely in his element here: a stirring performance that may be his best yet. Crowe lags behind him and the rest of the cast, but still manages better than early word would have it. He finds the menace in Javert, and balances it with his reliable singing skills to help the character fit in. (I never listened to the stage musical more than a few times and I have no idea how much it will impact longtime fans.)
Which brings us to the film's technical innovations: something subtle and not readily recognized at first glance. Rather than recording the songs before the fact and having the actors lip sync, Hooper records their voices live on set. A piano accompaniment during production is eventually replaced by a full orchestra, but the actors' voices come directly from the shoot itself. That provides an immediacy unseen in the annals of musical cinema, and contrasts the film's epic vision with moments of shockingly tender intimacy. Theatrical performances need to play to the cheap seats; all of the emotion needs to come out in the voice. Not only does Hooper put us right in the actors’ faces, but he delivers the vocal tone to perfectly compliment it.
You'll find no better evidence of this principle in effect than with Hathaway's showstopper of a musical number: five unbroken minutes that should win her an Oscar. Fantine has lost everything… selling her body for the first time, shorn off her hair and all but naked in the streets. Hooper places the actress's face against a black background. She's all alone with her despair and anguish, with absolutely nowhere to hide. Not only must she sell the character's emotional reality, she has to do it in key. I sobbed – openly sobbed – for the entirety of the scene, something I haven't done at the movies in well over a decade.
Hooper expands that to a full two-and-a-half hours, with a fearless cast by his side and an eye for staging that couldn’t play in any other medium. He avoids elaborate choreography, save for a few moments with Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter (playing a pair of innkeepers as requisite comic relief). Authenticity and realism are his goals. Only the singing marks it as a musical, a combination that would defeat a less skillful director (or even a more skillful one whose gamble didn’t pay off).
Here, it succeeds beyond his wildest ambitions, delivering not only a shattering rendition of the phenomenally popular musical, but a compelling case for one of the best musicals ever made. I’ve never been a keen aficionado of the genre, though the best of them can move me when they do well. Count this one among those ranks, a triumph not only for Hooper, but for a genre that may have some life in it yet.