Les Misérables been my favorite stage musical since I first experienced it about 20 years ago. With its compelling and universal themes of redemption, forgiveness, hope, faith and charity intertwined with heart-wrenching human tragedy and suffering, the story’s appeal is timeless, though it is set in 19th century France during a period of violent political upheaval. In an unapologetic nod to God and Christianity, it features a merciful priest who provides the turning point for the main character and concludes with a celebration of the eternal nature of the soul, so beautifully portrayed on stage in the production’s final scene. Unlike many musicals the songs of Les Misérables, belted out by various characters, particularly the protagonist Jean Val Jean, take precedence over dialogue and provide the central means of expressing their deepest fears and anguish as well as advancing the plot.
So how would all of this translate onto the screen in two hours and 37 minutes with actors who aren’t primarily known for their singing skills?
Played masterfully by Hugh Jackman, the character of Jean Val Jean, a man who transforms from petty thief to hardened prisoner to embittered free man to successful factory owner and mayor — all while being relentlessly dogged by law-upholding police inspector Javert — is nothing short of brilliant. Jackman’s impressive vocals, mannerisms and facial expressions, combined with his genuine physicality (he actually lost weight and abstained from water for 36 hours before filming Val Jean’s prison sequence) bring this multi-faceted character to vibrant, mesmerizing life in an Oscar-worthy effort.
Russell Crowe turns in a respectable performance as Val Jean’s determined nemesis Javert, a man who lives by the letter of the law and performs his duties as police inspector with unrelenting focus and grim resolve. In one of the most remarkable examples of film’s superiority over stage, the scene in which a beaten down Javert, unable to accept the mercy shown him by his longtime enemy — foreshadowed many times by Javert’s habit of walking along the edges of tall structures while decrying Val Jean — is gut-wrenching in its palpable realism.
Then there’s Anne Hathaway, whose heartbreaking interpretation of tragic Fantine should also earn her an Oscar. Her haunting rendition of I Dreamed A Dream, the character’s sorrowful signature ballad of what might have been is jarring in its raw emotion as is the scene in which a defeated Fantine weeps bitterly while her silky, long hair is roughly cut off in exchange for desperately needed money.
Since all musical performances were filmed live rather than having the actors lip-sync to a pre-recorded soundtrack, they’re a spellbinding testament to the extraordinary talent of director Tom Hooper’s assembled cast. Combined with spectacular cinematography, Les Misérables creates an experience for the movie-goer that extends far beyond the limitations of the stage. From the opening scene in which Val Jean and the other prisoners toil fiercely to right a massive ship under brutal conditions to the breathtaking mountain landscapes to the bloody battles on the barricades to the breathtaking finale in which Val Jean passes on to his richly deserved eternal reward, this movie is absolutely captivating.
Just be sure to bring along a pack of tissues. You’ll definitely need them.