In the first long act of Les Miserables, Anne Hathaway opens her mouth, and the agony, passion and violence that have decorously idled in the background of this all-singing, all-suffering pop opera pour out. She’s playing Fantine, the factory worker-turned-prostitute-turned-martyr, and singing the show-stopping I Dreamed a Dream, her gaunt face splotched red and brown. Hathaway holds you rapt with raw, trembling emotion.
The director Tom Hooper can be a maddening busybody behind the camera, but this is one number in which he doesn’t try to upstage his performers. He shoots the song in a head-and-shoulder close-up, with the background blurred. By that point, with her dignity and most of her pretty hair gone, Fantine has fallen as far as she can. She has become one of the abject castaways of the musical’s title, a wretched of the earth.
Les Miserables is one really big show, perhaps the biggest and certainly one of the longest-running. Since the English-language version was first performed in London in 1985, it has been translated into 21 languages, performed in 43 countries, won almost 100 awards (Tony, Grammy) and been seen by more than 60 million people.
Hooper’s movie opens in 1815 and closes shortly after the quashed June Rebellion of 1832, boiling the story down to a pair of intertwined relationships.
The first pivots on the antagonism of a one-time prison guard, now inspector, Javert (Russell Crowe, strained) toward a former convict, Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman, earnest); the second involves the love-at-first-sight swooning between Cosette (Amanda Seyfried) and Marius (Eddie Redmayne), a revolutionary firebrand. As a child, Cosette was rescued by Valjean from her caretakers, the Thenardiers (the energetic Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter, who nicely stir, and stink up, the air).
Part of the tug of Les Miserables is that it recounts a familiar, reassuring story of oppression, liberation and redemption, complete with period costumes and tear-yanking songs. Georges Sand apparently felt that there was too much Christianity in Hugo’s novel; Hooper seems to have felt that there wasn’t enough in the musical and, using his camera like a Magic Marker, repeatedly underlines the religious themes that are already narratively and lyrically manifest.
In the first number (Look Down), set against a digitally enhanced, visibly artificial port, Valjean helps haul an enormous ship into a dock. Dressed mainly in cardinal red, the prisoners pull on ropes, while singing during a lashing rain.
By the time the scene ends, Valjean hasn’t just been handed his release papers after 19 years as a prisoner, he has also become a Christ figure, hoisting a preposterously large wooden pole on to his shoulder.
Hooper’s maximalist approach is evident the very moment the scene begins — the camera swooping, as waves and music crash — setting an overblown tone that rarely quiets. His work in this passage, from the roller-coaster moves of the cameras to the loud incidental noise that muffles the lyrics, undermines his actors and begins to push the musical from spectacle toward bloat.
Jackman suffers the most from Hooper’s approach, as when Valjean paces up and down a hallway while delivering What Have I Done, a to-and-fro that witlessly, needlessly, literalises the character’s internal struggle.
Hooper’s decision to shoot the singing live, as opposed to having the singers lip-sync recorded songs, yields benefits. It’s touching, watching performers like Hathaway and Redmayne giving it their all, complete with quavering chins and straining tendons.
Song after song, as relationships and rebellion bloom, you wait in vain for the movie to, as well, and for the filmmaking to rise to the occasion of both its source material and its hard-working performers.
Les Miserables (u/a)
Director: Tom Hooper
Cast: Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, Anne Hathaway, Eddie Redmayne, Amanda Seyfried, Helena Bonham-Carter, Sacha Baron Cohen
Running time: 157 minutes