Les Misérables: From the stage to the screen

style="float: right; margin-bottom: 10px; font-weight: 600;"Sat 23rd Feb, 2013

Tom Hooper (director of the critically acclaimed "The King's Speech") has taken what has become one of the world's best-loved musicals, pulled-together an all-star cast (including Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe and Anne Hathaway), thrown in a script containing very few lines of un-sung dialogue (reflecting the style of the musical itself) and created one of 2012's most-anticipated films. Now that it has been released, does it live up to the hype? Has Hooper succeeded in translating the stage-musical to screen?

As far as the plot is concerned, this is no light, easy-going subject-matter. "Les Misérables" has been translated into various dark English phrases, such as "The Wretched", "The Poor Ones" and "The Victims". Such names well evince the mood of the tale. Les Mis is set in early 19th century France. Whilst we follow our lead man, Jean Valjean (Jackman), the revolutionary context is ever present and stirring in the background. Although the revolution is over and a king has quickly restored himself to the throne, the poor are poorer and more destitute than ever and injustice devours the French. There are those who are unwilling to accept the status quo. A potential new revolution is brewing, which shall determine the fates of many of our lead characters.

At the beginning of the film, Jean Valjean has been released on parole after 18 years a prisoner, effectively a slave. After quickly breaching his parole, Valjean is pursued relentlessly for the next 17 years by police inspector Javert (Crowe), despite changing his name and moving to a new city. Javert embodies a very rigid, black and white attitude towards the law: "Once a thief, always a thief." No matter what great acts of kindness Javert witnesses in Valjean, our hero will always be a villain in Javert's eyes.

This element of the plot is far stronger than that concerning the French revolution. In this adaptation, Javert is one of the more interesting and complex characters. Crowe may not be an experienced singer, but he delivers a perfectly adequate musical performance and proves that he is a more than adequate actor. Valjean and most of our other leads are pure and good and utterly devoid of a dark side. Javert portrays more depth. On the one hand, he represents the law and it is his job to suppress those who would stand up and speak out and to tear down any new attempt of revolution. On the other hand, part of him is aware on some level that not all is well in France, that there is bravery and truth in the young rebels. At the same time, he is so blinded by his conviction in the law that he wastes his life pursuing Valjean, a man he knows does great good to society, but who is yet to pay for a crime committed 17 years ago.

The film's younger generation, led by Amanda Seyfried's Cosette and Eddie Redmayne's Marius, provide a weak subplot in Cosette and Marius' star-crossed love and Marius' inability to reconcile his new-found love with his dedication to the revolutionary cause. Marius comes from an upper class family whose money he has shunned out of disgust towards the great rich-poor divide. The film would have us believe that it is worth giving everything you have for something you truly believe in, your family, your money, even your life, and yet Marius' final actions would suggest that a beautiful girl is worth more than your most fundamental values.

The musical elements of the film contain both great successes and also notable flaws. The song most greatly anticipated by all I would think is Anne Hathaway's performance of "I Dreamed a Dream" as the character Fantine. I believe fans of the play will be well-satisfied with this beautiful and heartbreaking performance from a great singer and, perhaps, an even better actress. All of the songs were sung live as the actors performed the scenes (not recorded prior to actual filming). Hathaway takes on an impressive task and delivers an almost flawless rendition of this song whilst convincingly sobbing over Fantine's failed hopes and dreams. 
A few other lyrical moments stand out for me above the rest, including Samantha Barks' fantastic performance of "On My Own" and Eddie Redmayne's devastating version of "Empty Chairs at Empty Tables". By the end of the film, many will be brought to tears by one or more of these songs.

The physical transition from stage to screen does not translate so well as regards the musical elements of the film. When an actor performs a solo, the camera tends to focus for the two to three minutes of the song on close-ups of their faces and expressions. This loses impact as the song draws on and becomes a little dull. In an early scene, Jackman's Jean Valjean paces back and forth in a church as he performs "Valjean's Soliloqy", but there are only so many times we can watch Hugh Jackman walk up and down the same length of floor and with the camera honed in so close to his figure. On a stage the actors would have more freedom to move about and we are more accustomed to one actor singing to the audience for an extended period of time.

All in all, this movie was clearly a great challenge for its director. Having to turn a stage musical into an all-sung film is no easy feat and at moments, Hooper has created a very interesting and beautiful piece. However, throughout the entire film it is clear that what you are watching is, in essence, a stage musical. Hooper has not quite managed to complete the transition.

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