Hugh Jackman as Jean Valjean, left, and Anne Hathaway as Fantine in a scene from "Les Miserables."
Tom Hooper’s “Les Miserables” presents in every facet of filmmaking Victor Hugo’s epic tale of a man and his attempt to regain human worth. The story follows one Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) after years of imprisonment for a petty crime. Through its entirety, “Les Miserables” shows when a man faced with adversity transforms his life so radically he radiates goodness in those around him and unconsciously allows others to follow his example. However, Les Miserables is, foremost, a film, and films are to be critiqued through acting and technical performance.
Before we delve into the ins and outs of this film, lets address all those anti-opera and musical haters. Stop! This is not only one of the best operas I have critiqued; rather, I feel it will become one of the greatest films of all time. Give “Les Miserables” a chance, and I guarantee you will not be disappointed.
“Les Miserables” represents a superior performance directly due to its star-studded, talented cast. With Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe and Anne Hathaway, one can only expect greatness; also, under the experienced direction of Tom Hooper, the possibilities were endless.
Once word was released of Hugh Jackman playing Jean Valjean, the film adaptation of “Les Miserables” was going to be something of precedence. What viewers may not realize is Hugh Jackman has an extensive background in operatic musicals; he performed at Sydney’s Opera House as a lead in “Beauty and the Beast,” “Oklahoma” and “The Boy from Oz.” Additionally, he clinched Broadway’s 2004 Tony for Best Actor with his portrayal of Peter Allen in “The Boy from Oz.” His performance in “Les Miserables” is nothing short of remarkable. The character depiction of Jean Valjean is one of the most difficult characters to fully grasp. However, Hugh Jackman took the role to a new and unparalleled level. Jackman deserves every award nomination he has received.
In reference to Russell Crowe’s performance, the viewers could not of asked for a better actor to play antagonist and villain Javert. His vocals are subpar compared to the high level set by the gifted ensemble surrounding him. However, for whatever slight obstacles Russell Crowe faces with his vocal performances, his non-verbal acting is extraordinary. His overall portrayal of Javert is beyond reproach. Crowe looks deep into the depths of the psyche of a troubled man struggling between his own morality and the law he has sworn to uphold; overall, Russell Crowe truly becomes the distraught man that is Javert.
Last and certainly not the least, Anne Hathaway’s depiction of Fantine is nothing short of astonishing. We all know Hathaway had grown from “The Princess Diaries” days, but I was in absolute awe during her performance of “I Dreamed a Dream.” Her execution of the aria as well as her heartbreaking emotion will make the coldest of hearts melt. Never have I been in such admiration of an actor’s performance. Sadly the role of Fantine sees only 15 minutes of screen time. However, Hathaway optimized her time on the silver screen; she had my full attention from the beginning and had me in tears by the end. Many said Hathaway was not capable of capturing the essence of Fantine, but to everyone’s amazement, the Academy quashed any doubts of Anne Hathaway’s performance with the announcement of her nomination for best supporting actress. Ladies and gentleman, all she needed was 15 minutes.
Along with the superior acting and vocal talent created by a talented ensemble, the technical work done on this film changed the way we as viewers perceive an epic. Camera work, visual effects, and sound design are the areas in which Les Miserables far surpass its predecessors.
With the classification of “epic,” a certain camera style is expected. The standard manor of filming an epic is through use of steady and smooth camera work; the shots are carefully designed not to be jarring or abrasive. Tom Hooper took this concept and threw it out the window. He and cinematographer Danny Cohen chose to punch in on these actors with gritty, handheld camera movement. In order to bring as much theatre to the filmstrip, Hooper and Cohen used limited cuts during the vocal solos allowing the film to appear as theatre relatable and realistic as possible. These risky choices made by the director cinematographer duo create a visually stunning film.
Along with a spectacular camera performance, visual effects play an integral role in making the Post French Revolutionary period come to life. Not to ruin the magic that is filmmaking, but almost every modern day film shot has been enhanced digitally through the postproduction process. This is also true throughout the film “Les Miserables.” “Les Miserables” would have never been accepted by a modern audience without the help of visual effects supervisor, Richard Bain, and his talented team of over one hundred and fifty visual effects artists. With the set extensions, sky replacements and endless compositing, Bain and his team flawlessly recreated a digital 1832 Paris, France.
Finally, the most impressive part of this film is by far the sound design. In traditional musical film adaptations, music is recorded months before filming in a recording studio. This action forces actors to make most of their performance choices before they meet the cast. This act is why most musicals are often not widely appreciated. In regards to “Les Miserables,” Tom Hooper chose to change the way musicals were filmed. Therefore, the film vocals, in their entirety, were recorded live. Nothing is enhanced or fake about the actors’ voices; every musical note heard in the film is real, true, and in everyway pure.
“Les Miserables” will revolutionize future musical adaptations. A talented company of actors were drawn together in a fresh, new way to impress the minds of the masses. Ancient operas are stuck in the rut of insipid acting performances with ear shattering arias. So, in short, Les Miserables will affect the genre in such a way that it will adapt to a modern audience without abandoning its elegant heritage.
James T. Ealum III, a native of Albany, has studied to be a screenwriter at Full Sail University Film School, where he earned a bachelor’s degree and worked on three films. At Darton College, he majored in theater, where he acted, stage managed and performed lighting design. He plans to earn a master’s degree in creative writing.