An opera of unexpectedly epic proportions.
The first thing that crossed my mind while watching Tom Hooper’s Les Miserables is that this entire story is based around truth. Not a true story, mind you, but rather the truth about 1800’s great Britain. In that time period, the country was engulfed in sadness, desperation, and revolution. The rich outmatched the poor. The sick and the hungry dominated the streets. Employment was scarce. In times like these, misery seemed to inhabit every dark corner, and God was hard to find in the shrinking light.
Perhaps this is also a metaphor for today’s world, but that’s besides the point. Les Miserables shocked me with its energy, its spirit, and its mature handling of its subject matter. If the film industry was a railroad, and the train is Les Miserables, Tom Hooper is the conductor, and he’s taking me through a roller-coaster of emotions that range from shock, to sadness, to grief, to anger, to loss, to laughter, and ultimately, to happiness. How was I supposed to know that I would begin the film with a sulk as low as Russell Crowe’s beard and end the film with a smile beaming as brightly as the sun?
This is the kind of film that Les Miserables is: the kind that finds the light shining through the cracks in the concrete. Based on both the original novel by Victor Hugo and the subsequent musical by Claude Schonberg, Les Miserables follows the story of Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman), a convicted criminal in 1815, Great Britain who was put away nine years ago for stealing a loaf of bread. After being released from prison and breaking parole, Javert (Russell Crowe) is tasked with finding him and imprisoning him once again.
But somewhere along the way, Jean’s hardened heart changes. He encounters Fantine (Anne Hathaway), a sick prostitute mother who greatly fears for what will become of her daughter Cosette (Isabelle Allen). After hearing her dying wish pleading for Cosette’s safety, Jean vows to find Cosette and raise her in the world as if she were his own child.
This is an emotion-stirring epic that is vast and grand beyond all comprehension. Directed by Tom Hooper, Oscar-winner for 2010’s The King’s Speech, Les Miserables is a movie that juggles emotional tensity with visual splendor and grandeur, with Hooper’s dignified set pieces shining brightly all over the place in a broadly dignified fashion. The opening sequence in itself is bold and spectacular, beginning deep in British seawaters and lifting itself out of the water to show a view of British prisoners pulling a ship into the bay. With the visua effects, there is a great historical context within this picture, focusing attentively to many issues in 1800’s France, including criminal treatment, poverty, child neglect and the French revolution.
At the same time though, this movie thrives as an aesthetic piece, with these characters conveying their thoughts and emotions through their powerful performances and voices through the film. Russell Crowe is upright and stoic as Javert, a man committed to law and order to the point where it is almost inhumane and cruel. Anne Hathaway is affectionate and masterful as Fantine, and her character is one of the more tragic characterizations I’ve come across in recent cinema.
Hugh Jackman, however, steals the show as Jean Valjean. He is a man who has experienced cruelty and unfairness firsthand and has hardened his heart so much just so he can survive in this world. But he is also a man who has gone through a change, a man who experienced a kindness and love that no one has shown him for so long. Jackman is brilliant in the lead role, and a powerful spiritual connotation is told through his fantastic, emotional journey through the perilous land of France.
Admittedly, the film is at times overly expressive, and the music is also overwhelming to the story. The plain and simple fact is that there’s too much of it in the picture: 98% of all of the performances in the film involve singing and music, and only one or two lines are spoken through lines of actual dialogue in this movie. Won’t people get tired of hearing just relentless music numbers one after the other?
But the important thing is that Les Miserables has the emotion to match the dramatic tension that is heard through the music. As far as story and character goes, Les Miserables is unparalleled, and draws in its viewer through the drama and tragedies the characters are experiencing. I’ll admit, balance is an issue, and people might have trouble staying interested in a two-and-a-half hour musical.
This isn’t just a musical though. This is an opera of unexpectedly epic proportions.