Photo courtesy of Universal Pictures
Anne Hathaway and Hugh Jackman in Les Miserables

New Les Misérables does justice to book, brings emotion

By Dusty Henry

Kleenex should really sponsor screenings of “Les Misérables.” Waiting in the theater before previews (or even just Tweets and Facebook statuses for that matter), it’s inevitable to hear several people say the following:

“Oh my God, I am going to cry.”

“I don’t know if I’ll be able to restrain myself from singing along”

“I’m crying already. It hasn’t even started yet and I’m crying.”

“Les Misérables” has a huge reputation to live up to. Based off of Victor Hugo’s 1862 novel and consequently the 1980 Claude-Michel Schonberg musical, the latest film adaptation of Les Miz is put in the awkward position of needing to live up to its predecessors but prove itself as a worthy and new adaptation.

The outcome for this dilemma is astounding. Particularly, Les Miz succeeds as the new standard for film musicals.

The story focuses on the trials and redemption of Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) as former prisoner released on parole by Inspector Javert (Russell Crowe). Valjean sheds his identity and seeks to become a better man –- until Javert discovers his identity and makes it his goal to hunt down Valjean.

Along the way we meet a series of characters that affect Valjean’s path, including Fantine (Anne Hathaway) who succumbs to prostitution to provide for her daughter after she loses her job at Valjean’s factory.

It should be noted: this version of Les Miz is a full-on musical adaption. There is little dialogue that is not sung. More impressively, the actors were directed to sing live on camera instead of overdubbing later on.

It’s hard to pinpoint what element exactly makes this Les Miz so impactful, but this choice to have the actors sing on camera is up there (along with the art direction and authentic set design). Les Miz is not happy for most of the story arc; it’s full of emotional grit. People die very often, and morals are put up against the path of least resistance with little reward.

This is not “Hairspray” or “Mama Mia!” Even though Crowe may have been the weakest vocalist in the lead ensemble, his performance still captured the tone and greater weight of the story. It’s not about being pitch perfect, it’s about capturing the emotion.

Jackman’s transformation throughout the film is stunning. Though Hathaway’s performance of “I Dreamed A Dream” will likely be the standout moment for most audiences (as it should be; try not to tear up in her painful moment of desperation), Jackman’s acting carries the threads throughout the film with dramatic subtlety. It would be easy to overact in the musical setting, but Jackman treats the role as if he were acting in a hard edged drama instead of a spectacle.

Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter, whom play Monsieur and Madame Thénardier respectively, play up the comic relief with the dazzle and ridiculousness you would hope for in a Broadway production. In this case, their over-the-top demeanor helps give relief to the audience who has seen little light from the beginning of the movie to the Thénardier’s introduction.

Director Tom Hopper (“The King's Speech”) does not let the actors off easy with dramatic cut scenes and distractions. When one of the actors is performing a solo, often the camera zooms in and stays on their face. It is a risky choice, one that could come off contrived or awkward, but ends up highlighting the talent in the film.

Hathaway trembling in vibrato while cutting off her hair, Jackman looking head on as he confronts his guilt, and Crowe looking over the Seine River as he ponders why he is so driven to bring justice. All moments in which the actors are the sole focus of the shot and yet are more captivating than a massive explosion in a Michael Bay film.

While Hollywood may be stuck in the mode of sequels and reboots, the latest incarnation “Les Misérables” film feels warranted for its commitment to treating film like literature. This is a timeless tale and has been done justice again.

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