By Mary O’KEEFE
Adapting a musical from stage to the movie screen has never been easy, especially if it is a well-known theatrical musical. For those with a theatre background, like myself, the play’s the thing – but I must admit “Les Misérables” is the closest thing to theatre I have seen on the big screen.
“Les Misérables” starts with the stark images of prisoners in France of the 1800s. Jean Valjean (played by Hugh Jackman) was sentenced to five years in prison for stealing bread for his starving family. He had served more for a variety of reasons.
Javert (played by Russell Crowe) is a prison guard who hates Valjean but must follow the law and release him on probation. The former prisoner finds it difficult to get a job or to even find a room because his papers identify him as a convict. He finds one compassionate priest and his life changes. Years later he is a leader in a new community with another name and life continues until one day Javert, now promoted to Inspector, shows up at Valjean’s factory. And now the ties to other lives begin.
Fantine (Anne Hathaway), a worker at this factory, is shamed into leaving by fellow workers. They assume she has a questionable past and casts her out of her factory job – a job she needs to help pay a couple to care for her daughter. Valjean is caught up with his own problems and is not there to help Fantine who is now on the streets. Valjean, realizing what he has done, vows to raise the child Cosette (played as an adult by Amanda Seryfried and as a child by Isabelle Allen). Then the 1832 Paris Uprising occurs, becoming a background for a love triangle between Cosette, Marius (played by Eddie Redmayne) and Éponine (played by Samantha Barks).
I am not a “Les Misérables” groupie and, for the most part, I hate musicals – theatrical or film. However, I love great performances and this film was mind blowing. From the start, Jackman was in command, even as the beaten prisoner.
Another strength was this movie, unlike every other musical film to date, was shot with live singing during filming.
In most cases, actors meet months before filming to lay down the musical tracks for a film and then lip sync to their own recordings during filming. This production of “Les Misérables” however allowed actors to sing as if they were on stage, capturing the audio at the same time as the video. There were, reportedly, no follow-ups in the recording studio afterward, either. The emotions the songs wrought were real, in-the-moment reactions, most evident when Hathaway performed, “I Dreamed a Dream.”
I had heard that song many times before, but felt as if I heard it for the first time when she performed it. I actually understood the words behind the song.
I would recommend this movie to everyone. It is probably too much for a young audience member, but middle-to-high school age and beyond would be fine. The way this musical was filmed allows the audience to feel as if they have a front row seat to a theatrical performance.
“Les Misérables” was directed by Tom Hooper and opens on Christmas day.