I'm a trainee journalist living in London. A personal blog is forthcoming.
Published January 15th 2013
Do you hear the people sing?
Les Misérables is easily my favourite show of all time – and I don't say these things lightly. As such, I was one of the first in line to see the new film adaptation of the world's longest running musical, upon its release last week.
Translating to something along the lines of "the miserable ones" or "the victims", Les Mis is a weighty tale of injustice, bravery, love and redemption, adapted from Victor Hugo's absolutely gigantic book of the same name. The story spans seventeen years, between 1815 and 1832 and hosts a tragic ensemble of the wretched and downtrodden souls of 19th century France.
It begins with Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman), a convict enslaved for nineteen years for stealing a loaf of bread ("Five years for what you did. The rest because you tried to run"). When he is finally released he finds that the world has no mercy for "dangerous criminals" and he can't find work or shelter. With the help of a generous gift of silver from a very good Bishop ("I have bought your soul for God") Valjean breaks his parole, adopts a new identity and becomes Mayor and factory owner, responsible for thousands of workers.
"But he could not run forever, no not even Jean Valjean."
Hunted across the years" by persistent arm of the law, Javert (Russell Crowe), Valjean is eventually discovered, but runs again in order to raise the orphaned daughter of Fantine (Anne Hathaway), a woman who was cast from his factory and forced into a life of prostitution and sickness that eventually killed her. Forced to keep moving to protect his adopted daughter, Valjean finds himself in Paris at the dawn of revolution.
The story culminates in the Paris Uprising of 1832, where many brave young men fight and fall in the name of freedom.
There aren't enough superlatives in the English language to explain the wonder of this film. Directed by Tom Hooper (The King's Speech), who is a pedant for realism, the transition from stage to screen is sublime, aided significantly by a slight restructure that includes settings and scenes from the book that can't be utilised on stage.
Although realism is difficult in a film comprised of 49 songs (including a new composition, "Suddenly" that has received an Oscar nomination for best original song), Hooper succeeds in bringing the story to life by having the actors sing live for each take rather than miming along with a pre-recorded track. This allows them to improvise emotional nuances, capturing every breath and heart-wrenching sob and leaving room for much deeper character exploration. The most prominent numbers are made even more poignant with unforgiving close ups that show every tear and make the audience feel just uncomfortable enough to believe it.
In the name of realism, Hooper also had the cast build a barricade themselves on camera – with an ominous coffin propped at the front of a pile of destroyed furniture – and Hugh Jackman went 36 hours without water to give him the haunted, faded look of a slave during the overture.
As might be evident by now, Les Mis is certainly not a happy film (although there are moments of much needed comic relief), but what it lacks in the joviality of most traditional musicals, it makes up for in power. The themes of pain, love, loss and hardship are always relevant, making the experience incredibly relatable. The music is as consuming and impassioned as it is on stage, done justice by a perfect cast including (as well as the above) Amanda Seyfried, Eddie Redmayne, Helena Bonham Carter, and Sacha Baron Cohen, and introducing two wonderfully talented (and adorable) child actors, Isabelle Allen and Daniel Huttlestone playing young Cosette and Gavroche. Plus, as a nod to the fans, there's a cameo from Colm Wilkinson, the first British Valjean and star of the 10th Anniversary Concert.
Fans will also appreciate the inclusion of the iconic image of Enjolras hanging dead upside down as the barricade is overrun.
However, there's no need to know the show inside out. This is a film for everyone and I genuinely hope everyone gets the opportunity to see it. Undeniably deserving of all the adulation and award nominations it has received, Les Misérables leaves you feeling changed, like you've really been through something. Despite the obvious les misery of it all, the ending is hopeful and, although you'll likely be in tears, you'll definitely be better for the experience.