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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

 
LES MISÈRABLES

RISING FROM THE MUCK
By SANDY MACDONALD


The film version of Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boublil's phenomenally popular stage musical Les Misèrables (60 million viewers served!) offers improvements on every level. Going back to the source – Victor Hugo’s galumphingly discursive 1,900-page 1862 novel, itself a blockbuster in its day – director Tom Hooper(The King’s Speech) has managed to refine and focus the story’s through-line, while capturing vivid visuals that no amount of stage magic could ever evince.

After a dispiriting splash of computer-generated imagery in the opening frames, the film dives right down into the brine and muck, where the miserable dwell. The action starts with Jean Valjean (indefatigable Hugh Jackson) and his fellow convicts arduously hauling a frigate into drydock. It’s a shock when Jackson – straining, drenched, battered beyond recognition – launches directly into song, but it’s also a beachhead of sorts. Eschewing the standard practice of having actors lip-synch to prerecorded tracks, Hooper opted to have his performers act and sing simultaneously – what a concept! – on the spot, in situ, with orchestrations added postproduction.

While the approach is not without its pitfalls (especially once less gifted singers come to the fore), it unquestionably amps up the emotional impact. We see Anne Hathaway – playing Fantine, an unwed mother forced to take to the streets to support her farmed-out young daughter – all but fall apart before our eyes. Hers is an extraordinary performance: raw, immediate, utterly without vanity.

It’s also, unfortunately, a peak moment, with nearly two hours of running time still to go.

Hooper’s other casting choices are not always so felicitous. Russell Crowe is barkingly dull as the obsessed Inspector Javert, who hounds Valjean in a decades-spanning pas de deux littered with missteps (again and again, Javert lets the “bad” guy get away). As the young Cosette, Fantine's child becomes Valjean’s cherished ward, Isabelle Allen is delightfully unaffected; it pains one to see this promising child grow into an adult nonentity played with bovine vapidity by Amanda Seyfried, whose vocalizations are a wispy warble.

As Marius, Cosette’s coup-de-foudre paramour, Eddie Redmayne proves himself a gifted tenor, especially in the rueful post-revolutionary lament "Empty Chairs at Empty Tables.” However, Redmayne's customary mien, that of an innocent gobsmacked by inchoate yearning (cf. My Week with Marilyn), is getting old fast. It’s a mystery why Aaron Tveit, who has repeatedly demonstrated triple-threat chops on Broadway, didn’t get a bump up. At least Tveit’s ardent Enrojas lends urgency to the Paris uprising of June 4, 1832 – a one-day flash-mob phenomenon that Hugo witnessed firsthand. Here the fracas seems to arise from nowhere. Granted, the underlying anti-monarchical politics were complicated, but a better build-up would have helped.

Nor is it ever adequately explained how Marius might morph, seemingly overnight, from firebrand to happily reinstated aristo. After Valjean saves Marius’ life by hauling him through the sewers (be thankful Smell-O-Vision never took off), Marius’ fatcat grandfather treats the young couple to a fancy wedding complete with bewigged footmen. Lucky for us, on hand to provide a welcome distraction from this all too tidy denouement are those rascally grifters, the Thénardiers (Sasha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter), who’ve been generous in offering hilariously louche sideshows all along. If only their grown daughter, the martyrically inclined Eponine (British pop star Samantha Barks), showed half their spark.

While the film as a whole falters in its long slog to a finale, it’s packed with scenes that demand – and deserve – a spot in one’s cinematic memory bank: Fantine’s precipitous descent into the underworld, to start (armies of makeup artists must have been employed to begrime and ulcerate these have-nots trying to sell what little they had), plus Valjean’s surreal conversion in a mountaintop monastery, dizzying in its transcendental rapture. That these transports come so early in the film is a failing that reflects Hooper’s good-faith effort to hew to the script. I expect Victor Hugo wouldn’t have had it any other way.

 


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