Two years after The King’s Speech, Tom Hooper returned with an adaptation of a much-loved musical that had been incredibly successful during its stage run. It’s also one of only a few films to have its story adapted for two Best Picture winners as we previously saw a straight version of Les Misérables back in the 1930s.
This time there is barely any dialogue as almost every word of Victor Hugo’s original novel has been transformed into song by Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boublil. According to my research, the total number of songs in Les Misérables is a staggering fifty-one even if some our reprises and others don’t last very long. One thing Hooper did differently from any of the other musical films we’ve seen so far is to get his actors to sing live. This worked well for most of the performers, many of whom had previous musical experience either on stage or on screen. However, this isn’t true of Russell Crowe whose musical performance as the film’s main antagonist Javert had been criticised by most. While I agree with them, I think Javert is the one role where the singing doesn’t have to be that strong and I thought that Crowe was an impressive enough presence for his musical weakness not to be that much of hindrance. I thought that Crowe also worked well against Hugh Jackman who portrayed the film’s hero Jean Valjean brilliantly. Despite Jackman being known for portraying action heroes on screen, he has a background in musical theatre will is well-utilised during the first half of the film. This half of the film covers a lot of ground and sees Valjean go from convict to mayor and factory owner in a number of years. Valjean’s redemption comes after he takes in Cosette, the daughter of one of his late factory workers Satine. Anne Hathaway won the Best Supporting Actress Award for her role as Satine mainly as she nailed one of the musical’s most memorable numbers ‘I Dreamed a Dream’.
However, I personally feel as if the second half of the film is stronger than the first thanks to the themes of the French Revolution. I feel Hooper is at his strongest when portraying the conflict between the poor residents of Paris and the nobility. His direction of the film’s key number ‘Can You Hear the People Sing’ is brilliantly done and reflects how well the musical has translated onto the screen. I would say that ascetically, Les Misérables is beautifully realised with every set, costume and character designed within an inch of their lives. Meanwhile the unrequited love between the lovely Eponine and revolutionary leader Marius is wonderful to watch thanks in part to the performance from Samantha Barks. In my opinion Barks, who at the time was a relative unknown, deserved as much recognition for her role as Hathaway did for hers but unfortunately this wasn’t the case. I personally thought that the one weak point of this second half was the budding romance between Marius and the adult Cosette which I felt was a sickly sweet affair. In my opinion Amanda Seyfried and Eddie Redmayne didn’t have great chemistry and therefore I didn’t care if their characters got together or not. Les Misérables also saw Hooper work with Helena Bonham Carter once again as she portrayed landlady Madame Thernardier and made a great double act with Sacha Baron Cohen as her husband. In fact the scenes with the unscrupulous Thernadiers were some of my favourites and provided such much needed comedy in between all the dramatic revolutionary uprising.
While enjoyable in parts, Les Misérables was too long for my liking and not all of the songs worked their magic on me as they did other people. While the performances, most notably those from Jackman and Barks, were good there was nothing about Les Misérables that was particularly remarkable. Although I do appreciate that Hooper wanted to do something different after The King’s Speech I didn’t think that he left much a mark on Les Misérables with his only input seeming to be the decision to have the actors sing live. But realistically there was very little difference between the film and stage versions of Les Misérables and I think the film would’ve received the same feedback regardless of who was directing it.