For long-time fans of the stage musical of Les Misérables, it has been hard to approach the film production other than on a rollercoaster of trepidation. From the mere idea of making it into a film, through the sometimes surprising casting news to the first set photos of what appeared to be a giant barricade covering half a city, there seemed to be a lot of ways for this to fail spectacularly. The story alone is an immensely complicated 19th-century beast, spanning decades, while the musical has become an international phenomenon that millions of people know off by heart. The decision to cast famous Hollywood faces felt like the final nail in the coffin for the possibility of creating a successful film out of a moralistic tract on social injustice (set to music).
Les Misérables, however, is no stranger to success against the odds. The book was generally derided by French critics in 1862, but enthusiastically bought by the general public. The musical adaptation in 1985 got terrible reviews but sold out through word of mouth and has not ceased showing in London since. So was there, perhaps, a way for Cameron Mackintosh and Tom Hooper to pull this off, to make a successful film version against all the odds as well?
The simple answer is yes. There are undoubtedly some flaws in this film, but they are not ones that ultimately rob the story of its grandeur and power. The direction is both a curse and a blessing depending on the scene, as Hooper seems to have decided on fairly static close-up shots for almost all major songs. For the more introspective numbers this works well, and even brings out nuances in some characters that are lost on the vast expanse of a stage. It is at war, however, with the natural energy of songs of anger or frustration, and for example leaves the brutalised convict Jean Valjean stranded impotently kneeling in a chapel as he rages against the world and his life. Quiet scenes shine, but others would have benefited from livelier direction.
The intensity and fervour of the characters, however, shines through. There is not a truly weak link in the cast, and even those actors who are not trained singers find something extra to power them through. Russell Crowe as Javert is every bit the determined pit-bull of a policeman he should be, and if his singing is a little forced and unimaginative, that is more easily overlooked for being entirely in character. Hugh Jackman as Valjean is stunning, shifting between singing and speaking with the ease required to make a sung-through musical feel natural, but also embodying the strength and resolve required to be a much more practical sort of hero than the type that comes with adamantine claws. Anne Hathaway’s role as Fantine feels much larger than it really is, thanks mostly to her tour de force performance of “I Dreamed A Dream”, while Eddie Redmayne as Marius perfectly portrays the youth and naivete of a student swept up in first love and political idealism.
Ultimately, this could probably never be a perfect film, either for old fans with an ideal cast in their head, or for new viewers wondering why anyone would try to make a musical out of a story where almost everybody dies. At the end of the day, though, the strength of Les Misérables in all its versions comes down to the belief that it is possible to change the world for the better, no matter how difficult. The film will send you out of the cinema with a desire to find a giant flag and wave it overhead for freedom, truth and justice – or at least for the euphoric feeling that they might exist.