Film review: Les Miserables, 2012

In 1985, the Royal Shakespeare Company premiered the musical ‘Les Miserables’ at the Barbican Theatre.  Produced by Cameron Mackintosh, the Boublil-Schonberg show takes Victor Hugo’s classic French novel and creates a through-sung sensation.

The film version has been years in the planning, and during the intervening years there have been two landmark concert versions, the 10th anniversary at the Royal Albert Hall, and the 25th anniversary at the O2.  Now Les Miz becomes a major movie, with Oscar nominations and critical acclaim.

But is it any good?

Hugh Jackman, veteran of musicals such as Oklahoma and Carousel, plays Jean Valjean, and it is a marvellous performance.  Those seeking the ‘stage Valjean’ can be happy, too, as the originator of the musical role (Colm Wilkinson) also appears in this film, as the Bishop.  Jackman’s only weakness is his lack of ageing over the years covered by the story, perhaps a sop to his movie leading man status.  Jackman even makes a good stab at the hardest song in the score, ‘Bring Him Home’.

The role of the policeman, Javert, is played here by Russell Crowe, who acts well, but his singing will not trouble memories of past performers such as the UK’s Roger Allam or Australia’s Philip Quast.  Crowe is something of a disappointment in my view, failing to engage emotionally with his big songs, such as ‘Stars’.

The ladies in the cast impress.  Anne Hathaway has been rightly feted as Fantine – she can’t sing with the power of a Patti Lu Pone or a Ruthie Henshall, but she puts across the absolute degradation and misery of her situation during her big number, ‘I Dreamed a Dream’.  It is heartbreaking.  As the winsome Cosette, Amanda Seyfried (last seen in film musicals in Mamma Mia) sings well and gives the character some well-needed life.  From the stage, Samantha Barks shows star potential as Eponine, and I hope she achieves the promising career she craves on the screen.

The young student rebel, Marius, will forever be associated with Michael Ball, but he is portrayed well here by Eddie Redmayne, a picture of innocence and very touching post-barricade action singing ‘Empty Chairs and Empty Tables’.  The rest of the students, largely from stage productions of the show, are absolutely fine.

One weak link, given the darkness and realism of the film over the original stage show, is in the Thenardiers, the comedy relief, played here by Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter.  They outstay their welcome and don’t really fit well in the piece.  Perhaps you have to be a fan of ‘Ali G’ to appreciate this actor.

What about the look and feel of the film?  It is very much on close-ups, swooping shots down from tall buildings, and realistic blood, snot, pus and excrement.  A sanatised show this is not.  See it on a big screen like the Imax to get the full effect.

Finally, a lovely touch is in the many small parts and cameos from stage musical stars throughout the film, including Mackintosh and Schonberg themselves in the final barricade shots.  The Les Miz film is pretty much a triumph – and if the acting overshadows the singing and the score (and around twenty minutes of material gets cut from the stage version) we still have the concert version from 1995, which is as close to perfect as we are going to get.