In a recent red carpet interview, Anne Hathaway referred to Les Misérables as ‘the people’s musical’, and nothing proves the sensitivity and truth of that insight more than the landscape of this extraordinary film, in which crowds of the poor and the desperate, reduced to a sea of colour and clawing hands, push ever closer against the windows and carriages of ‘the righteous’, the misery of their lives staining the streets of Paris grey, and eventually, red. It’s against this vivid background that a truly exquisite cast evokes the intense, personal and human drama behind that raging storm. The result is perfection itself.
With a cast this good, this film could have been done in an empty warehouse and still have won a ton of Oscars. What’s extraordinary is that the actors aren’t just individually brilliant; they’re brilliant together. By that, I mean that they ‘fit’ together, the dynamics and the relationships between each of them causing a number of intensely moving ‘bells’ to be rung in the audience’s head throughout the film. When Hugh Jackman’s Valjean picks up Anne Hathaway’s half-dead Fantine from where she’s about to be arrested as a prostitute and carries her away to hospital, her head rests gently against his shoulder, and it feels like it belongs there. When Marius (Eddie Redmayne) and Cosette (Amanda Seyfried) first catch sight of each other, you know, immediately, that each is the other’s destiny. That’s what I mean. Then there’s the ability of each actor to sing live in a medium that picks up every line in your face and tremor in your voice, and to sustain such remarkable characterisation while singing in long takes for hours on end. This is the best ensemble cast that I’ve seen for a very long time: brilliant together, brilliant alone.
For me, Hugh Jackman was never the obvious choice for Valjean apart from his fortunate possession of a beautiful singing voice. I’ve never been so happy to be wrong in my entire life. When he sings, he seems to speak without actually doing so; you are conscious that this is a human voice talking to you; his face is exquisite, his tiniest changes in expression speaking volumes; his eyes can be wild, like those of a hunted man, but also compassionate and unspeakably tender. You seem to evolve with him and feel with him as he longs, tentatively, for any kind of human connection. The addition of Suddenly, a new song for Valjean that describes his feelings after deciding to raise Cosette as his own, fits so naturally into both his character and the musical that only people who know Les Miz well will notice that it’s new at all. Jackman’s performance in those five minutes is more than sufficient to win him an Academy Award and ensure that people will still be remembering this role long after he’s dead: I’d also be extremely surprised if Suddenly isn’t immediately absorbed into Les Miz canon and becomes yet another showstopper right alongside I Dreamed A Dream and One Day More.
Anne Hathaway has received the most publicity over her role in this film, and the hype is entirely justified. Fantine’s life truly is a wreck: selling her body in order to feed her daughter, Cosette being the only light in her life, a light that she clings to desperately and obsessively to keep off the approaching cloud of insanity that we see in her eyes and hear in her voice. Hathaway’s performance is vividly psychological and often disturbing, oscillating between suicidal depression and gleeful, childlike bliss when thinking of her child. Her relief and her gratitude at Valjean’s willingness to help her are sincere and heartfelt enough to make you weep. Her interpretation of I Dreamed A Dream is filmed almost entirely in close up, her ravaged face resembling a map of the grief that she expresses, and our admiration at her ability to sustain such emotion with a camera right in her face increasing by the second. Eddie Redmayne made a very astute observation in the featurette about how this is the kind of song that everyone knows from the cradle, but when Anne sings it, it feels like you’re listening to the words for the first time. This originality defines her entire performance. Morbid and incandescent, she completely reinterprets Fantine’s character, and her reappearance in the film’s final scene, when she’s the last person you expect to see, makes you lose what little composure you have left.
In essence, Russell Crowe is the perfect Javert: charismatic, menacing, repressed, seething with passion. However, despite the sheer power that his presence commands on screen, when it comes to singing, he is rather uncomfortable. While perfectly able to sing on the note, he is lamentably incapable of sustaining it, which causes some of the film’s greatest moments, that are his by right, to suffer enormously. Javert’s showstopper, Stars, is a simultaneously haunting and electrifying piece of music, and director Tom Hooper heightens its potential by setting it on the parapet of a building directly opposite Notre Dame. With those looming towers and blazing stars in the background, you’d hardly expect an actor of Crowe’s calibre to make a hash of it, but regrettably, he does, his notes dissolving and fading into obscurity. A crying, crying shame.
Then there’s Eddie Redmayne. As anyone who has followed his career would know, this is an actor of tremendous artistry, and his extraordinary performances in The Pillars of the Earth and Tess of the D’Urbervilles have certainly merited a Hollywood breakout before now (and no, My Week with Marilyn does NOT count: everyone was looking at Michelle Williams and Kenneth Branagh). After this, he is unlikely to go anywhere but up. In the stage musical, Marius is a mildly annoying, two-dimensional lover who spends most of his time moping around and trying to be dashing. Redmayne brilliantly reinterprets the character torn between his political ideals and the woman he loves with intensely emotional acting, a deeply expressive face and an exquisite singing voice that are, frankly, mesmerising. I’ve rarely seen such a heartfelt expression of grief and loss as his Empty Chairs and Empty Tables, where Marius contemplates the ruined empty shell of the café where he and his friends, now all dead, ‘talked of revolution.’ He acts with the maturity, and experience, of somebody twice his age. What irritates me intensely is that this is the kind of performance that should be winning oodles of awards but isn’t even getting nominated. Let’s hope that casting directors are more intelligent than the Academy.
Another immensely strong point of the film is the revitalising of Paris as a great filmmaking city without a single shot of the bloody Eiffel Tower. Despite the fact that none of it was filmed in Paris at all, many of the truly great, personal moments of each of the characters, particularly Javert, are filmed against a sweeping, majestic backdrop of old Paris that takes their personal drama to enormous heights and flawlessly captures how the drama of the individual may either be reflected in or swallowed up by the landscape of that great city, a very nineteenth century concept that resonates all the way through to the twenty-first. All this is supported by a deeply devoted and professional chorus line capable of coming to vivid life as the sweepings of the street, or as serving as a disembodied jubilant or despairing accompaniment to the lives of the characters.
Director Tom Hooper has assembled a cast of people, known and unknown, who are at the very top of their game, each character down to the last extra perfectly cast with the meticulous obsessiveness of a casting director for the BBC. He has taken an old and beloved musical and completely reinvented it, the medium of film increasing its pathos and relevance today. It’s a sprawling, original and moving masterpiece that gives some of the musical’s most well-known lines new significance and takes us to new places, both beautiful and disturbing.