Is it possible to contain enthusiasm so as to not oversell “Les Misérables”?
Sorry, but I can’t.
Opening Christmas Day, the big-screen adaptation of Broadway’s runaway hit is a landmark achievement in musicals. While there have been movie musical-comedies and musical-dramas aplenty, director Tom Hooper’s soaring film is arguably the first truly dramatic-musical.
Never before have actors sung live on set accompanied only by a piano with the orchestra and full-throttle vocal recordings added in post-production.
Rather than pre-recording the songs in the safety of a studio and lip-syncing while filming, the actors were able to focus entirely on the emotions of the scene. Even die-hard enthusiasts will find more meaning to “Les Misérables” and, with a few altered lyrics to heighten the drama, they will feel as if they are seeing the show anew.
Never before has there been so much advance buzz on a stage-to-film adaptation.
While certainly movie musicals have earned Academy Award honors, “Les Misérables” is a shoo-in: Best movie, best director and best actor Oscar nominations are likely, and Anne Hathaway, start writing your acceptance speech. Yes, the shiny-gold, bald-headed man is yours.
Never before has a film musical had such a breathtakingly talented vocal cast. With the exception of Russell Crowe as Javert.
Hathaway is magnificent. Rather than playing the martyr, she adds complexity to the role like none before her. Her fine singing and superb acting as Fantine absolutely destroys the audience. “I Dreamed a Dream,” paean of loss, is a high point. Or low point, considering the number of tears she will evoke.
Samantha Barks, who played the Éponine role both on the West End and in the PBS-broadcast 25th anniversary production, is stunningly perfect in “On My Own,” belting out her anguish for unrequited love. Broadway vet Aaron Tveit makes a powerful, charismatic Enjolras. And the big surprise is the vocal performance of Eddie Redmayne as Marius Pontmercy. Have Kleenex at the ready for his “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables.”
Amanda Seyfried looks lovely and capably handles the role of Cossette. The child actors — Isabelle Allen as young Cosette and Daniel Huttlestone as Gavroche — give memorable performances to complete the dynamic cast. With the exception of Russell Crowe.
The big-voiced Colm Wilkinson, the original Jean Valjean from the premiere London and Broadway productions, plays the Bishop of Digne. Reportedly, producer Cameron Mackintosh and composer Claude-Michel Schönberg make cameos, but we may have to wait for the DVD commentary to spot their appearances.
As the Thenardiers, cockney-accented (in France?) Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter add quirky humor, but their characterizations are appallingly derivative.
And finally, Hugh Jackman as Valjean. Hooper has said he wouldn’t have made the movie if Jackman didn’t exist. And the movie belongs to Jackman. After playing the roles of Wolverine on film and Peter Allen on Broadway, Jackman combines both his musical and dramatic talents to impress. No, completely bowl us over. Wholly in command of the movie, Jackman is most marvelous in his rendition of “What Have I Done?” and mines raw emotion in each line of lyric. The new composition to make a song Oscar-eligible, “Suddenly” sung by the star, will easily stand among the best of those nominated in the Academy’s history.
The director makes a bold choice to balance the large-scale scope of “Les Misérables.” Hooper’s extreme close-ups and uninterrupted takes for the musical numbers deepen the audience’s empathy and spiritual resonance — to the point of being emotionally draining — for each of the characters played by these actors. With the exception of Russell Crowe.
Parents should be aware that “Les Misérables” is with reason rated PG-13. The central element is a bloody rebellion for freedom, with prostitution of early 19th century French slums an essential factor to the storytelling. But there is no intent to be exploitative.
Cineastes will quibble, but movie musical fans will be enraptured. “Les Misérables” is beautiful, heartbreaking, uplifting and masterfully produced. And this heart is full of love, Tom Hooper.
Content advisory: suggestive and sexual material, violence and thematic elements