Review: Les Misérables ★★★★★

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Les Misérables is a masterpiece. It is a beautiful, swirling vision brought stunningly to life by director Tom Hooper and producer Cameron Mackintosh. I have always been a fan of the musical, even before I saw the show in London. The haunting melodies of Claude-Michel Schonberg have enthralled and enchanted me all my life, and I am overjoyed that they have been transferred to film so well. I really don’t think this effort could have been bettered.

Hooper’s film very successfully keeps Victor Hugo’s huge, sprawling story of a wronged criminal, a resentful officer, an orphaned girl and a group of angry revolutionaries, to less than three hours. The stage musical runs at roughly three and a half. This film manages it in an hour less, but never does it feel condensed or rushed.

The brave decision to film the actors as they actually sung, rather than pre-record them, pays off brilliantly. As a result, the big musical numbers audience members know and love carry a raw intensity.

Anne HathawayThe highlight of the picture (and there a many to choose from) is Anne Hathaway’s eye-wateringly heartbreaking rendition of ‘I Dreamed a Dream’. When she sings it, her character is in the depths of despair, having been forced to work as a prostitute in order to send money to her young daughter. The true horror of the situation is captured so well, not just in the superb set designs that surround her, but in her eyes as she sings. Hooper keeps the camera very close to her face as she sings – I don’t think it ever once leaves her throughout the whole song. It makes the scene unforgettable. Hathaway has been a terrific actor in all of her roles, but I believe this is the one which history will remember.

Eddie RedmayneThe talent doesn’t stop at Hathaway. Every single actor in the film (so well chosen by casting director Nina Gold) goes beyond expectations. Eddie Redmayne (pictured right) has been teetering on the verge of stardom for so long, but I think he may now have found it. He plays Marius, a young revolutionary who falls in love with Cosette, the daughter of Hathaway’s character (well-played by Amanda Seyfried) and offers his role levels of sensitivity and subtle attention that I fear many other actors would have overlooked. Samantha Barks, who was first thrust into the spotlight by the BBC’s talent show I’d Do Anything, is also a revelation as a young woman in love with Marius. He sees her as a friend but fails to notice the deeper feelings she has for him.

Another revelation is Russell Crowe. He as a wonderful, deep, sumptuous singing voice that is as magnificent to hear as it is to see him act. He plays the aforementioned resentful officer who is keen to find and arrest an ex-convict, played by Hugh Jackman, for breaking his parole agreements. Jackman, who has a lot of experience in musical theatre, is also superb.

Aaron Tveit ImageA mention should also be given to Aaron Tveit (pictured left), whose work has mostly been in American television up until now. He plays the role of Enjolras, the good-looking and commanding leader of the student revolutionary group who become the focus of the film in the latter half. Fans of Gossip Girl will perhaps recognise him as Trip, an ex-lover of Serena. I never thought when I saw him in that rather limp role, competent though he was, I would ever devote a paragraph to him in the review of a British-made musical film, but there we go. The world’s full of surprises, and Tveit is a real talent to watch.

The film is devastating and shocking in its representation of revolutionary violence. It is shot in a way that may surprise some viewers. There is a lot of handheld camera-work; the type one would usually associate with an Andrea Arnold film rather than a big musical. But instead of jarring, it works very well and makes the film feel pleasingly rough and organic. Although it isn’t gratuitously violent, the power of the situation feels very real and is wonderfully evoked by the rousing song ‘Do You Hear the People Sing?’

The lighter aspects of the plot are not sacrificed for the dark, however, as plenty of comedy is provided from Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen as a couple of thieves who attempt to con and rob any person who crosses their paths. Although National Treasure Helena has allowed herself to be typecast, I couldn’t think of an actor who would play her role better. Sacha Baron Cohen is also marvellously entertaining.

At time of writing, I have not seen all the Best Picture nominees for this year’s Academy Awards, but I would be shocked if any will be better than Les Misérables. I won’t dismiss them until I have seen them (Spielberg’s Lincoln, which hasn’t opened in the UK yet, has been widely acclaimed), but it would take a very, very good picture indeed to persuade me that this film deserves anything less than the award for Best Picture. It isn’t just a potential candidate for best picture of 2013. It is one of the best films ever made. I am aware some will baulk at my words, believing them to be meaningless hyperbole. But all I can be is honest, and I can honestly say that this motion picture is an extraordinary experience. It is a gem of cinema genius and as close to perfect as a film can get.

Les Misérables (2012), directed by Tom Hooper, is released in UK cinemas by Universal Pictures, Certificate 12A. 

This review has been edited: Correction was made on 12/01/13 to amend an inaccurate statement on the period setting of the film.

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Second year BA Film & English Student. Watches too many films and enjoys good novels.

7 Comments

  1. avatar

    I absolutely love this review and the depth it goes in to but I really do wish people would stop saying that Les Mis is set in the French Revolution when it so clearly isn’t. (Not just here, it’s an inaccuracy popping up left, right and centre!)

  2. avatar
    Ciaran McManus on

    I must say I agree with whoever ‘really?’ is. I enjoyed nothing in this film and I’m shocked (but not bitter, of course, enjoy away) that it could affect anyone as strongly as it did you, Barnaby. I’d try and articulate my feelings, or lack thereof, for this film, but the New Yorker’s review says everything I’d ever want to say and far better than I ever could. Whilst some of the review is willfully provocative, the points made are all sound, and I disagree with none of it. Like the author, I went in completely untainted by expectation (expect perhaps the usual expectation that I would have an enjoyable evening at the cinema), having never seen the musical and being relatively unfamiliar with the music itself, and left completely bemused and unsatisfied. I couldn’t quite work out what was wrong until I read it:

    http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/culture/2013/01/theres-still-hope-for-people-who-love-les-miserables.html

    I would also state that the egregious presence of Russell Crowe in that film negates any claims to it being one of the best films ever made. Quite simply awful. Anyways, what do you think of the criticisms?

  3. avatar

    I could not agree more with Ciaran McManus – while the production was great (apart from the wooden, off key, chronically uncomfortable looking, relentlessly hilarious Russell Crowe), the source material limited Les Miserables to a ridiculous, emotionally flat experience. How can Hathaway’s character evoke emotion when we don’t know anything about her, other than being pretty and virtuous?! How can a song move you when it is sung in the same emotional register as every other song in the film (bar Master of the House, which was a welcome relief, if utterly incongruous). Emotion should come from characterisation and shifts in tone, but the cast were undeveloped archetypes, and the ‘songs’ musically forgettable and monotone. There is nothing less appealing than feeling you are being coerced into emotion, but fans of the production since a young age are oblivious to this and consequently seem to exhibit a bizarre indoctrinated fanaticism for it, despite its many shortcomings.

  4. avatar

    Completely agree with Ciaran. Usually think Barnaby is spot on, but i think this is just so mediocre. such a forgettable film. Twilight had more depth.

  5. avatar

    I haven’t seen the actual play but really did enjoy the film. I thought it was very powerful and was very impressed by the cast and their ability.

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