By Chaz Lipp
I will say it upfront: I don’t care for musicals. As a general rule, I avoid them. I don’t think many people would disagree that it’s a polarizing genre. For me, it’s easier to suspend disbelief when watching live actors break into song and dance on stage rather than on film. I don’t mind kitschy things like Grease or Glee, but I’ve always had a hard time swallowing heavy drama when the actors break into choreographed songs, usually lip-syncing to fully produced musical tracks. I know it’s a typical gripe, especially as the golden age of Hollywood musicals has long passed. I just couldn’t help but preface my discussion of the latest filmed adaptation of Les Misérables with that confession.
Even with these preconceived notions, I was caught up in this grand production of Victor Hugo’s 19th century novel of the same name. Les Misérables is something of a musical for musical-haters. I can’t speak for lovers of the genre, or for hardcore Les Mis buffs. I also freely admit to the 1998 non-musical film version being the only one I’ve seen prior to this. I appreciated that version for being a straightforward drama with strong performances from a similarly star-studded, but non-singing, cast that included Liam Neeson, Geoffrey Rush, Uma Thurman, and Claire Danes. How could any musical version capture the downcast atmosphere of this gritty, depressing story?
Director Tom Hooper (Academy Award-winner for Best Director, The King’s Speech) has managed to do just that, placing us firmly in mid-19th century France amongst prisoners, prostitutes, peasants, and revolutionaries—all with the cast singing nearly every line. There’s no hokey choreography, just the raw emotion of the songs mined by great performers. Much has been made, rightly so, about Hooper’s decision to have his actors sing live during the shoot. This allowed them to explore alternate readings of the lyrics in the same way they would have with spoken dialogue. Nothing about the delivery of the songs was predetermined. Anne Hathaway, as the tragic single mother Fantine, steals the movie with her heartrending take on “I Dreamed a Dream,” but the whole cast does exemplary work. Yes, even Russell Crowe as Javert (more on that later).
Hugh Jackman more than earned his Best Actor nomination with his take on hardened criminal Jean Valjean, a man imprisoned for stealing bread to feed his starving family. After 19 long years under the watch of Javert, he is paroled and immediately reverts to crime. The Bishop of Digne (Colm Wilkinson) takes pity on Valjean, lying to cover up his crimes and setting him on his way with enough silver to begin a new life. Under a false identity, Valjean becomes of an entrepreneur, presiding over a successful factory. Fantine, while under his employ, has been outed as sending money to her illegitimate daughter Cosette (Isabelle Allen) and is fired. She scrapes by as a prostitute, suffering brutal abuse.
I’ll spare you an endless plot summary, because an awful lot transpires as the story jumps forward numerous years. Cosette is all grown up (played as a young woman by Amanda Seyfried), having been cared for by Valjean who rescued her from the misguidance of the Thénardiers (Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen, providing garish—but welcome—comic relief). The second half of this two hour and 38 minute film (short by Les Mis standards) encompasses a student revolution and a romance between Cosette and one of said revolutionaries, Marius (Eddie Redmayne). And there’s the on-going pursuit of Valjean by the vengeful Javert. It’s all handled with aplomb by Hooper, working from a screenplay credited to four writers.
Again, the live singing demonstrates Hooper’s commitment, first and foremost, to excellent performances—de-emphasizing vocal perfection. Critics and fans were divided by the mixture of trained, Broadway veterans (such as Samantha Barks, excellent as Éponine) and non-singers. No one bore the brunt of criticism more than Russell Crowe, but honestly I think such complaints miss the point. No, Crowe doesn’t sound like a typical musical theater actor by any means. But his burly, blunt singing perfectly complements his take on Javert. Just as not every great actor is blessed with a melodious, radio-ready speaking voice, not everyone in this Les Misérables is a technically proficient singer. Hooper clearly understood and embraced the importance of raw, emotional vibrancy above vocal virtuosity in telling this story.
Universal’s 1080p, AVC-encoded transfer is spectacular. Danny Cohen’s cinematography looks incredibly sharp and detailed throughout, even during the frequent low-lighting scenes. The set design and elaborate costumes, hair, and makeup are all showed off to brilliant effect on Blu-ray. The same can be said for the sound design on the 7.1 DTS-HD Master Audio mix. While not the equivalent of a mega-budget action film (with good reason), the surrounds are well-utilized and subwoofer activity is just right. The singing is showcased in absolute clarity, allowing viewers to absorb the impact of every lyric.
Those expecting a bonus feature extravaganza may be disappointed somewhat, but the features include a very solid, hour-long “making of” documentary (in six parts, with a “play all” function). While essentially self-promotional in nature, there are many good interview and onset clips (with particularly good info about the recording of the singing). Director Tom Hooper recorded an informative commentary track. There’s also a brief featurette that deals with the original Victor Hugo novel to round out the extras.