- Rated PG-13
All photos © Universal Pictures
Reviewed by David Medsker
t feels like the setup for a joke: Amanda Seyfried walks into a bar with Wolverine, Maximus, Catwoman and Borat. Twelve hours and six bottles of tequila later, they decide to make a musical, and not just any musical, but “Les Miserables,” one of the most beloved musicals of the last 30 years. But this production of “Les Miz” is anything but a joke: indeed it’s as close to perfect casting as it gets, and with recent Oscar winner Tom Hooper (“The King’s Speech”) at the helm, the timing is equally perfect. Have you seen the movies released this year? Not what one would call a bumper crop, which makes this dashing and devastating film a big-time horse in the upcoming awards race.
The story begins in early-19th century France, where Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) has recently been freed from prison, where he served 19 years for the unspeakable crime of stealing bread. Realizing that he will never be granted the opportunity to make an honest life for himself, Jean Valjean skips his parole in order to start over, but Inspector Javert (Russell Crowe), who lorded over him in prison, makes it his mission to find Valjean and put him back in jail. Years later, Valjean has become a respectable businessman, and when former employee Fantine (Anne Hathaway) falls on hard times, Valjean agrees to care for her daughter Cosette, who’s under the care of two sleazy innkeepers. Valjean is true to his word, but when young Cosette (played as an adult by Seyfried) comes of age and falls in love with a young revolutionary, Jean Valjean must reconcile his life on the run versus Cosette’s happiness.
Hooper did something small but critical to the movie’s emotional impact: he had the actors sing while they were acting, as opposed to lip synching to a pre-recorded track. Hooper was essentially telling his cast, “I know you can sing, but I want to see you give a realistic performance while doing it,” the way that countless actors in stage productions of the show have done over the years. He even takes this one step further during Hathaway’s big number “I Dreamed a Dream” by shooting her entire performance in one take. The end result is both breathtaking and heartbreaking. Hathaway is a lock to win the Supporting Actress Oscar. Bank on it.
Some lazy hack will compare Russell Crowe’s performance here to Pierce Brosnan’s in “Mamma Mia.” This will be patently unfair. Crowe can sing – he just has the wrong voice for the part. As the heavy, Javert should have the voice to match, but Crowe’s singing voice is surprisingly light for a guy who speaks with such a gruff baritone. It creates a bit of an emotional disconnect while he’s singing; instead of focusing on the action or the lyrics, one’s thoughts tend to run along the lines of, “Man, I thought he’d sound different.” Again, not bad; just… different.
Hathaway and Jackman will get the lion’s share of the good press, as well they should, but there are two other performances that should not go unnoticed. Samantha Barks is splendid as Éponine, the daughter of Cosette’s former innkeeper caretakers (amusingly played by “Sweeney Todd” alums Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen), and the girl who holds an unrequited crush on Cosette’s revolutionary sweetheart. The true star of the movie, though, is the person responsible for the sound mixing. There are several moments where two or more singers are singing concurrently, and with each of Hooper’s cuts during the more elaborate bits like the Act I closer “One Day More,” the voices seamlessly blend together, with each character getting just enough extra volume at just the right time.
I’m a bit surprised by some of the advance reviews I’ve read for “Les Miserables.” I went in knowing nothing about the story or the music – except that Trey Parker and Matt Stone did a brilliant tribute to it in “South Park: Bigger, Longer, and Uncut” – and found the movie to be gorgeous, beautifully sung, well acted, and occasionally tear jerking. It beats the hell out of “Chicago,” for sure, and that won Best Picture. With the polarizing crop of Oscar contenders that this is up against, it would not be a surprise if this pulled a similar stunt. Vive la resistance.