Review by Michael Jacobson
Stars: Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, Anne Hathaway, Amanda Seyfried, Eddie
Redmayne, Samantha Barks, Aaron Tveit, Sacha Baron Cohen, Helena Bonham Carter
Director: Tom Hooper
Audio: DTS HD 7.1
Video: Anamorphic Widescreen 1.85:1
Features: See Review
Length: 158 Minutes
Release Date: March 22, 2013
“And remember…the truth that once was spoken…
To love another person is to SEE THE FACE OF GOD.”
Les Miserables has always taken my breath away.
The powerful, modern, operatic musical based on the classic novel by Victor Hugo was a stage event that shook up the world and has truly never been equaled. I’m not a huge fan of musicals, but I’ve actually seen this magnificent production twice in person.
I had high expectations for any filmed version, and this movie, from Oscar-winning director Tom Hooper, exceeded them all.
The story: In France, Jean Valjean (Oscar nominee Jackman) is being released after 19 years of hard labor imprisonment for stealing a loaf of bread. But his ticket of parole means no work, no place to rest, and little chance to eat.
After stealing from a kindly bishop who offered him shelter, the bishop refuses to turn him in. “I have bought your soul for God,” he tells Valjean, causing him to rethink his life and set out on a new journey and with a new identity. The parole violation, however, sets in motion his most ruthless enemy, the officer Javert (Crowe).
Years later, Valjean is the mayor of a small town and head of a factory where the tragic Fantine (Oscar winner Hathaway), who is actually kind and virtuous, loses everything when her secret is discovered: she has a child. Forced to the street to earn money for her daughter, the poor woman is forced to sell her hair and her teeth, and ends up as a broken prostitute. “I Dreamed a Dream” is the moment Ms. Hathaway’s name was engraved on her Oscar statuette.
Valjean promises on her deathbed to care for her child Cosette, but he’ll have to do so on the run from Javert. And he’ll have to get the child away from the unscrupulous innkeepers she stays with, the horrible Thernardiers (Cohen and Carter).
Flash forward many more years, and France has been going from one ruthless dictator to another since the bloody Revolution. Now it is time for another wave of resistance, let by the stalwart Enjolras (Tveit). At his side is Marius (Redmayne), but Marius is distracted upon seeing the now-grown Cosette (Seyfried). It is love at first sight . His friend Eponine (Barks), the daughter of the Thernardiers, has always loved him, but she will never have her chance with him. Over her breaking heart, Eponine brings Marius to Cosette.
The revolutionaries rise, but they are on their own. Valjean attempts to flee from Javert once more, but upon learning of his adopted daughter’s love, ends up at the barricades to seek out Marius. Realizing it’s time to let Cosette go, he saves Marius’ life for her.
He also confronts Javert one last time and even spares him when he has the opportunity to kill him and finally end his decades of running. This shakes the unshakable Javert, and his new doubt is his undoing.
In the end, the aging Valjean reveals the truth about himself just before joining Fantine and the others who shook off their weary mortal coils before.
The story covers a long period of time, and introduces many new characters at the halfway point, but the music and the songs drive it all home with passion, power, and heartache. I’m not a lightweight, but this is a score that always brings tears to my eyes, and seeing the movie? Even more so.
There are so many wonderful things about this movie it’s hard to list them all. Some of the most amazing surprises:
Amanda Seyfried: It’s not really a surprise that she can sing for those of us who saw Mamma Mia, but even we didn’t know how good she was. Her voice is light and beautiful, and she rocks me back in my seat when she nails that high note at the end of “A Heart Full of Love”.
Samantha Barks: Eponine has been my muse for decades. Every sad song I’ve ever written has been for her. Safe to say, no fictional character means more to me than her, so I was ready to bring much scrutiny to whomever played her in the movie. Turns out, Ms. Barks sang the role in the anniversary concert. She is beautiful and heartbreaking, and her voice is transcendent.
Eddie Redmayne: I’ve liked him as an actor for a little while now, but who knew he had such a smooth, soaring tenor voice? One of the true musical highlights is his trio with Ms. Barks and Ms. Seyfreid. Gorgeous.
Anne Hathaway: again, no surprise she could sing, but to sing, perform and deliver so much pain in one unbroken take? Heroic…the stuff of legends.
All of the singing in this movie was done live on set and orchestrated later. Director Tom Hooper wanted to capture the songs in the emotion of the moment. This was difficult as well as (no pun intended) revolutionary, and the Oscar for sound was well-deserved. But Hooper’s vision of how to make a stage play, even an extraordinary one, so richly textured and cinematic, is truly remarkable. From the opening scene of prisoners hauling in a damaged ship, this movie is big enough to handle all of Victor Hugo’s ideas and all of Cameron Mackintosh’s music.
Hugh Jackman was also a nice surprise; he sings well enough, but his complete performance truly showed the world what this actor has been hiding. He was definitely robbed of an Oscar win. Russell Crowe does well enough, but his voice is far less impressive. The only real disappointments for me were Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter as the Thernardiers. It seemed like inspired casting, but they do very little with roles that were begging to be taken over the top.
This movie, even clocking in at two and three-quarter hours, is a mesmerizing, emotional experience that didn’t quite get the respect it deserved. Maybe many weren’t expecting the all-singing take on the story (only a handful of words are spoken), but they’ve missed the point. This is not some comedy with a few song and dance numbers, but a powerful, modern, English language opera that conveys all the tragedy and triumph of the human condition.
For my money, this was the true best picture of last year. In terms of size, scope, emotional power and performance, nothing else came close.
BONUS TRIVIA: The bishop is played by Colm Wilkerson, who originated the role of Jean Valjean on stage!
This is a gorgeous and flawless high definition transfer from Universal that is filled with color, detail and clarity. From bright lights to darkness, everything comes through with integrity and crispness.
It won an Oscar for its sound mix, and you can hear why. This uncompressed audio track is powerful and dynamic, and the blend of live singing and studio music is superb. It’s all about the music, and the music sounds phenomenal.
There are plenty of good featurettes that bring us closer to the cast and the crew, as they discuss the live singing, the casting, the production design, the realistic battle sequences, and the locations. There is even a look at the many West End stars who appeared in smaller roles…some even from the original stage production!
There is also a documentary on Victor Hugo’s original novel, plus a delightful commentary from Tom Hooper and a bonus digital copy disc.
Words fail me…Les Miserables is an event movie that lives up to the event. Beautiful, unforgettable, uplifting, devastating, emotionally overwhelming, superbly acted, superbly sung, superbly directed…have I left anything out? Oh yes…the true best movie of the year…and certain to stand out as one of the year’s best Blu-ray releases as well.