Review: Les Misérables

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Over the Christmas break I decided to take in the latest big screen musical offering in the form of the classic Les Misérables. A reported $61 million budget was enough to get big names Hugh Jackman, Russel Crowe, and Anne Hathaway among others together to take a stab at a full production, and with an estimated return of over $125 million it seems to have paid off for director Tom Hooper. There’s so much to talk about in a film like this, but I’ll just give my first impressions of the actors’ work.

Hugh Jackman, best known for his role as Wolverine in the X-Men movies, happens to have quite a background in stage and theatre. He did notable work as Curly in Oklahoma! (1999), something that has only recently come to my attention, and now takes on the challenge of Jean Valjean in Les Mis. It has to be said, this cannot be an easy role to play; originated by Colm Wilkinson in the 80’s, Valjean requires an incredible understanding of hardship, perseverance against the greatest of forces, and the darker side of our humanity. To at once understand what it is to be the lowest form of human life, express it merely in his eyes, and have it touch the viewer is truly something magnificent.

Jackman masters the difficulty of this part of Valjean’s character, with what I think to be his best acting, namely that of “Valjean’s Soliloquy” after stealing the Bishop’s silver. Watching his character lament himself devolving into a lowly thief in a world that has always “hated” him, I felt a depth of emotion and longing come from the actor that was one of the most powerful moments I had experienced at the movies. Throughout the film Jackman is convincing in his role as Valjean ages, meets his rival Javert, and attempts to come to terms with the balance between law and love. This tension is handled well here, and Jackman is confidence enough in what he’s doing to make the transition from criminal upstanding citizen, to hero and authentic caring human being well weighted. While he fell slightly short of the mark vocally in attempting “Bring Him Home” (a song written specifically for Colm Wilkinson), a wealth of emotion and realism was injected into the scene by the actor and this, I felt, was enough to see him through.

Russell Crowe was something of a surprise when I first heard about him being cast as Javert, the persistent and savagely law abiding inspector, whose sole purpose is to find and arrest Valjean for breaking his parole. Javert, like the lead role, is incredibly difficult to play convincingly: the lawman is not simply a mindless automaton forging ahead with his pursuit of the criminal; he is a man of principle, a godly man who has thought enough of his position in society and the greater order of the world to believe without doubt that his actions are in accordance with the will of God. There is an order that must be maintained for the successful management of human systems, but an order that is directly a part of the nature of God, whose will is law. There is a pride in Javert that sees him uphold his black-and-white view of the world and the place of people in it. He’s thought about the future of his soul, much as Valjean learns to do, but both take radically different approaches to doing so.

Crowe has placed a thick exoskeleton on his lawman role, which distances him from his emotions and other characters. He’s stoic, calculating, and obsessive in his position; a truly dedicated worker, so much so that he has lost touch with the common people, those who face hell on a daily basis. Crowe’s constant, immovable strength as Javert was impressive and a rewarding. His gravel voice and stern countenance fit the role well and brings a different dimension than that of the original Javert, Philip Quast. A criticism of Crowe’s work in the film has been the lack of strength and range of his singing compared to many of his costars. I’d originally felt the same as the movie began, but as it progressed I became content with the casting. There’s a level where Crowe’s singing reflects the nature of Javert’s character and sets him as the polar opposite to Valjean’s range, emotion, and concern for others.

The final role I want to discuss is Anne Hathaway’s interpretation of Fantine, the mother who seeks nothing more than to care for her child, Cossette. Of the characters in the musical, this is the one for whom I feel the greatest amount of pity due to her loss of situation and hardship. Her own life is a torture nearly unmatched in that she can no longer support her daughter after losing her job as a textile worker at Valjean’s factory and must send Cossette away to a despicable family. She struggles to find a place for herself in her new reality and eventually resorts to prostitution in order to send money to her child’s caretakers. Her death from sickness reinforces the “hell” that was her life, her only solace being Valjean’s promise to care for her daughter.

Hathaway, like Jackman, has a background in musical theatre and is more than touching here. She brings a meekness, and easily invites empathy for her character as Fantine’s life becomes harder and harder to bear. Her singing of “I Dreamed a Dream” is one of the most awe-inspiring performances of the year. Full of suffering, yet at times tender, Hathaway does the song justice with subtlety and grace. Playing Fantine is an opportunity to play one of the roles of an actor’s career and the chance has not been missed here, rather the opposite: fully grasped and met with the utmost understanding and engagement.

Les Misérables is one of my favourite works of art and to see it done so well on the big screen is a joy to behold. Recently, the film has received a number of significant Academy Awards nominations, including best picture, best actor, and best supporting actress; all more than well deserved.

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