Epic Musical Boasts New Sense of Realism
Having run continuously on Broadway for the past 28 years (longer than any in history), Alain Boublil and Claude Michel Schonberg's much-loved stage musical Les Misérables brings a well-seasoned audience frothing for an equally worthy screen adaptation.
Enter Tom Hooper fresh off his 2010 Oscar winning biopic The King's Speech, who, knowing he would need to do more than simply put the stage show on film to find an audience, teamed up with two-time Academy Award nominated screenwriter William Nicholson (Gladiator). Together, they not only capture the power and ambition of the stage experience that has always been driven by the music and songs, but simultaneously strengthen the plotlines and inject a new sense of realism and credibility into the timeless story of broken dreams and unrequited love set against the backdrop of post-revolutionary France. Of course, it never hurts to have on board the perfect storm of actors blessed with ready-made star power, gifted theatrical talent, and most importantly, golden voices capable of translating the play’s gigantic heart and soul to the silver screen.
And big it is. Near biblical in scope and legendary in significance, it comes from Victor Hugo’s sweeping tale of romance and redemption set in 19th century France, a country only a few years beyond its radical social and political upheaval that would have a lasting impact on the country and the world. Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman), having been imprisoned the last 19 years for stealing a loaf of bread, is given his freedom by jailer Javert (Russell Crowe). Javert reminds Valjean he’ll never outrun the mark of his crimes, and the animosity between the two will only grow more pronounced over the course of the film. But a twist of fate gives Valjean a chance to reboot his life.
Staying true to the stage production, the story is told completely in melody, through-sung with only a tiny handful of spoken lines. The musical’s original creative team was brought into the screenwriting process and asked to write entirely new lyrics to fill in the screenplay’s original narrative which even called for a new song ("Suddenly"). For those unfamiliar with the stage play’s sing-songy canter, it’ll take some getting used to, especially when he-men Jackman and Crowe are squared off in any of their numerous silver-backed confrontations. Fortunately however, both are well enough equipped in the vocal department to bring amazing life to Boublil and Schonberg’s words -- Crowe’s deep baritone playing nicely against Jackman’s pitch-perfect tenor.
We pick up the story some eight years later as Valjean is a remade man, now the owner of a factory, and mayor of his town. When it is revealed that one of his unwed factory seamstresses, Fantine (Anne Hathaway) is mother to a fatherless child, she’s thrown to the streets where she must sell her hair, teeth, and body to support her young child, Cosette. Hooper’s portrait of Fantine’s struggles in the grimy Paris streets is truly heartbreaking. And Hathaway’s deeply affecting rendition of the story’s signature "I Dreamed a Dream" is certainly the film’s crowning moment. Hooper’s risky choice to have all actors sing their parts live on set rather than lip-synch to a pre-recorded track pays off in a big way, most vividly demonstrated in Hathaway’s broken Fantine. Sadly, her character is long gone some 30 short minutes into the film’s 2-hour-forty-five-minute runtime. Romantic-comedy, super-hero, action, and now musical. Any questions of Hathaway’s belonging in the ranks of film’s most diversely talented have been put to rest.
The story jumps forward again, this time with Fantine’s child, Cosette as a grown woman now played by Amanda Seyfried. The Revolution has yet to completely settle and a band of young students take to the streets defying French military oppressors. A young cast takes over, led by Eddie Redmayne as Marius, a smart young soldier who falls for Cosette’s beauty, despite the smitten torch carried for his affection from Eponine (Samantha Barks). The revolution swells as do the beautiful musical numbers performed by Seyfried, Redmayne, Barks and a core group of extras from the original stage musical. The songs take center stage and the film’s pace quickens as the story ends in a rousing crescendo of voice and emotion, sure to soften even the crustiest of old souls.
Framed by Hugo’s tried-and-true story, given heart by Boublil and Schonberg's beautiful lyrics and melodies reinterpreted by Hooper’s burgeoning directorial flourish, Les Misérables now has a welcoming new home on the big screen -- and likely a new audience as well.
(Released by Universal Pictures and rated "PG-13" by MPAA.)
Review also posted at www.franksreelreviews.com.