film of the week
Les Misérables (12A, general release, 157 minutes)
Energetic musical is on song
Despite – or perhaps because of – its tenuous and liberty-taking relationship with Victor Hugo's sweeping 19th-century novel, Cameron Mackintosh's epic musical Les Misérables has been packing them out in London's West End for over 30 years.
Strange, then, that it's taken so long for this film version to surface. In fairness to all concerned, adapting Mackintosh's very stagey musical play for the screen presented considerable challenges, a few of which have proved insurmountable. That said, however, overall Tom Hooper's film is well made, suitably spectacular and surprisingly enjoyable in a camp, West Endy sort of way.
The action opens in 1815, at the end of Napoleon's disastrous second coming, as Hooper's camera sweeps across a hellish shipyard where a gang of convicts are hard at work. Among them is Jean Valjean ( Hugh Jackman), a desperate, bitter man who's served most of a 19-year sentence for stealing a loaf of bread.
Their work is overseen by a grim-faced prison commander called Javert (Russell Crowe), who operates to the letter of the law and has no pity for the men who live and die in his care.
When Valjean is released from prison, he wanders disconsolately across the French countryside until he's offered food and shelter by a kindly bishop. Valjean repays him by gathering as much gold and silver as he can carry and sneaking off into the night.
When the police catch him and frogmarch him back to the church, he's facing another 20 years in jail until the bishop insists he gave Valjean the valuables as a gift.
The bishop's generosity is a Damascus experience for Valjean, who vows to change his ways and dedicate the rest of his life to good works and his own moral redemption. Flash forward eight years and Jean Valjean has become a prosperous factory owner, and mayor of the northern port town of Montreuil-sur-Mer.
He's a fair and honest employer, but his foreman is an unprincipled letcher, who fires a girl called Fantine ( Anne Hathaway) after she rejects his advances.
Desperate for money to support the upkeep of her illegitimate daughter Cosette, Fantine drifts into prostitution and ill-health, and is rescued by Valjean shortly before her death.
Wracked by guilt, Valjean vows to find Cosette and raise her as his own. But meanwhile Javert has turned up in Montrieul and has been appointed police chief.
Up-and-coming English actor Eddie Redmayne plays Marius Pontmercy, a wealthy student with revolutionary tendencies who falls in love with the grown-up Cosette ( Amanda Seyfried) on the eve of the ill-fated Paris uprising of 1832.
Les Misérables, and the musical on which it's based, operates as a kind of cod-opera, in the sense that pretty much every line of dialogue is sung rather than spoken, and musical expositions form brief links between a series of setpiece songs. This approach takes a bit of getting used to, and can be vaguely tiresome at times, but Hooper's film nips along fairly briskly.
Jackman is a seasoned Broadway hoofer, and though his light voice sounds a bit forced at times his poise and charisma ground the film. Crowe just about manages to get by as the singing stage villain Javert, but Hathaway radiates misfortune most effectively as Fantine, and her rendition of I Dreamed a Dream is full of raw emotion.
Redmayne is terrific as Marius, and while Seyfried is as irredeemably drippy as ever, Sasha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter are great fun as the villainous Thenardiers.
But though the music itself is not my cup of tea, Les Misérables does have a winning energy and momentum, and is a brave attempt to revive a genre that Hollywood has forgotten how to make.