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Grace and intimacy in Les Miserables


Les Miserables (M). Director: Tom Hooper. Starring: Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, Anne Hathaway, Amanda Seyfried, Sacha Baron Cohen, Helena Bonham Carter, Eddie Redmayne. 158 minutes

I once saw an amateur theatre group perform 'Do You Hear the People Sing' — a musical battle cry for lower class rebellion — while pretending to be commuters on a packed train carriage. At a time when there were a lot of stories in the mainstream media about overcrowding on Melbourne's trains and trams, the performance worked as a lovely piece of topical farce. But it also sent shivers down my spine. That song always does.

Les Misérables is like that. Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boublil's 1980 musical adaptation of Victor Hugo's 1862 novel is replete with rousing anthems and stirring torch songs, which have cemented it as one of the great 20th century stage musicals. It is true that even good musicals can make for bad films (look at what Chris Columbus did to Rent); Hats off to director Hooper then that his Les Misérables stops just south of magnificent.

Hooper is best known as the director of A King's Speech, a character and dialogue driven film that showcased a magnetic performance by its lead actor Colin Firth. Les Misérables is set some years after the French Revolution in a society still suffering badly from class divisions. Yet despite this epic scope, and perhaps unsurprisingly considering his King's Speech pedigree, it is the more intimate moments of Les Misérables on which Hooper excels.

And there are plenty of these. The musical is populated by characters who incessantly plough their own moral and emotional terrain, or describe or challenge that of others through charged vocal exchanges. Hooper and his cinematographer Danny Cohen focus a lot on faces; there are many close-ups, and moments where characters sing directly to camera, the audience placed in the role of confessor or as the object of supplication.

He is blessed to have a lead actor of Jackman's calibre. Jackman portrays the story's tortured hero, Jean Valjean, a good man brought low by poverty and imprisonment, now on a lifelong quest for absolution. Jackman is a good actor as well as a great singer, and emotes rather than simply performing, plumbing the depths of Valjean's soul-searching. Other cast members, notably Seyfried as Valjean's adopted daughter Cosette, and Redmayne as young revolutionary Marius, prove similarly capable. The camera devours the intimate moments with voyeuristic vigour.

On the other hand Hooper does not cope as well with the larger-scale sequences. The wickedly witty comedic number 'Master of the House' — which showcases Cohen and Carter as dodgy innkeepers and cruel guardians of the young Cosette — is a mess of sight gags that either fall flat or get lost in the chaos.

More significantly, he botches the 'barricade' scenes that form the centrepiece of the second act. This extended siege and battle sequence, set during the ill-fated, anti-monarchist June Rebellion, is marred by awkward staging and shambolic editing that robs it of its emotional power and thematic and historical significance. This is one of a handful of serious flaws that stop the film from being a masterpiece.

Crowe, who portrays Valjean's nemesis, the coldly righteous lawman Javert, is another. Some reviewers will say Crowe's gruff charisma gets him by. It does carry him a long way, but his muddy tones tend to flatten a scene, especially when he is up against such a skilful vocalist as Jackman. And he mangles 'Stars', a terrific song at the end of the first act in which Javert articulates the sense of divinely ordered justice that drives and torments him. If this was a deliberate choice to favour an actor rather than a singer for the role, it has backfired.

This is in contrast to Hathaway. She can sing, even though like Crowe she is known primarily as an actor. Here she appears in the brief but pivotal role of Fantine, a single mother sunk to desperate acts that shred her dignity, whose fate is central to Valjean's tortuous moral formation. Hathaway's appearance culminates in a devastating, single-take performance of 'I Dreamed A Dream', her face contorting with the existential anguish of each syllable. It is the performance of the film, and its emotional zenith, the only problem being that it occurs too soon.

To his credit Hooper doesn't tone down the religious dimensions. Valjean and Javert are both 'men of God', Javert's Old Testament sternness contrasting with the compassion and generosity to which Valjearn aspires. Early on Valjean betrays a priest who's been kind to him, and the persistence of that man's mercy despite this betrayal sets the tone for the remainder of Valjean's journey. Les Misérables, then, is centrally a reflection on grace.

In cinemas Boxing Day

Tim Kroenert headshotTim Kroenert is Assistant Editor of Eureka Street.

Topic tags: Tim Kroenert, Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, Anne Hathaway, Sacha Baron Cohen, Les Miserables



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Existing comments

Thank you! A beautifully presented celebration of musical theatre's holy grail, brought into cinematic form. Along with your perceptive review, you have reminded us that Les Mis dances en pointe around a quality that's always in short supply: 'Les Misérables, then, is centrally a reflection on grace.'

Barry G | 13 December 2012  

Gentle Relief All-embracing Central Everlasting

Pam | 13 December 2012  

Generous review. Can't wait to see it. Sounds like Tim has confirmed my misgivings about the casting of Russell Crowe. Sorry, in a way, Tim hasn't commented on Helena Bonham Carter. But then maybe I shall appreciate her performance all the more. I think she is a superb actress. Here's hoping she can at least sing adequately.

Uncle Pat | 13 December 2012  

Hi Uncle Pat - Yes I like Helena too. She does a good job here as part of the comedic double-act with Cohen. It's just a shame that the filmmakers made a bit of a mess of their big musical number.

Tim Kroenert | 13 December 2012  

A great review, Tim. I'm looking forward to seeing it. Such an inspiring story of grace.

Anne | 13 December 2012  

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