In the run up to the release of Tom Hooper’s adaptation of Les Miserables, I felt somewhat alienated having never seen the stage show or heard any of the songs beyond Susan Boyle’s legendary rendition of ‘I dreamed a dream’. My friends would spontaneously burst into rousing choruses of ‘Master of the House’ and ‘One Day More’, displaying a common consciousness to which I was an outsider; I felt isolated, confused and a little scared. But now I realise that I was in a far more privileged position than they were. Although I suffered at the time, I was rewarded with the opportunity to witness the majesty of Les Miserables, for a mere £5.50 I might add, without any prior baggage of expectation or point of comparison. I was effortlessly swept away, free from the heavy anchors of scepticism, by a melodramatic wave of wonderful emotional power and sweet siren song. And I hear the stage show is even better.
Clearly Hooper had excellent material to work with: a story of epic grandeur and evocative potency told through an even more outstanding array of songs; yet this is no guarantee for a good film. Luckily, Les Mis was in good hands: Hooper handles it expertly, never letting the passion dip, and he astutely capitalises on the advantages that cinema has over the theatre. The film is packed full of sweeping panoramas and spectacular scenery, yet the most impact is derived from the brave lingering close-up, one example spanning the entirety of Anne Hathaway’s ‘I dreamed a dream’. Hooper also establishes blockbuster splendour without sacrificing the blood and grit: Fantine’s forced descent into prostitution is not one for the faint hearted.
But the main strength lies with the performances, which are almost universally brilliant. Hathaway’s solo is definitely a highlight, but Hugh Jackman carries the plot admirably, whilst Amanda Seyfried and Eddie Redmayne beautifully uphold the intensity. Their singing is also remarkable. You know what you are going to get with Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter, and they don’t disappoint, but less has been said, rather unfairly I believe, about Samantha Barks, who gives a wonderful performance as the unrequited lover Eponime. Despite being perfect for the role in every other way, Russell Crowe’s singing voice does unfortunately let him down. When he is in musical dialogue with another character it is not a problem, but the cracks cannot be ignored when his two solos arrive.
Les Miserables is shamelessly melodramatic, bombastic and over-the-top, but the force of the film and the conviction with which it is executed brushes cynicism aside, and it is simply a delight to behold.