Bringing a tale as sprawling and epic as 'Les Miserables' to the big screen is no light undertaking, though director Tom Hooper (best known for the all-conquering 'The King’s Speech') was perhaps the ideal man for the job. Look no further than the veritable Aladdin’s cave (that’s the official plural) of BAFTA and Academy Award nominations, and Golden Globe wins – the film has received.
This ambitious adaptation, furnished with a stellar cast that includes Hugh Jackman and Anne Hathaway (both Oscar nominated) is likely to delight fans of the stage musical and at the very least prove entertaining for philistines like me, who were previously unfamiliar with this much-celebrated show, based on the classic novel by Victor Hugo.
Set in early 19th century France – a time of widespread poverty, disease, social unrest and general awfulness – the tale follows the quest for redemption of grime-caked convict Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman). Having served a 19-year sentence for stealing a loaf of bread, he’s awarded his freedom by uncompromising prison guard Javert (Russell Crowe), though said freedom comes with the proviso that he sticks to a strict parole arrangement – and lives forever as a marked man.
However, desperate to start afresh, Valjean breaks his parole and establishes himself a new identity as a wealthy factory owner and mayor. His comfortable life is threatened when Javert reappears, and he becomes embroiled in an effort to save Fantine (Hathaway), a ‘fallen woman’ unfairly dismissed from his factory, now forced to resort to prostitution to provide for her child, Cosette.
In his attempt to rescue Fantine and Cosette from destitution, Valjean reveals himself to Javert, sparking a cat-and-mouse chase that spans many years and much of France, leading ultimately to the front-line barricades of a doomed revolution.
Perhaps one of the most remarkable elements of this adaptation is that the whole film is executed in ‘sung-through’ format – with very little spoken dialogue and lots (and lots) of singing, all recorded ‘live’ with the soaring score added in post-production.
Whilst I’m not a fan of the sung-through style, it does make the performances all the more impressive, particularly from Hathaway and Jackman, who are both stunning, with Hathaway’s heart-breaking, anguished and powerful rendition of 'I Dreamed A Dream' a special highlight.
Alas, the same cannot be said for Russell Crowe’s turgid and vocally sub-par delivery, throughout which he mostly wore an expression of bovine confusion. Still, this disappointment is more than made up for by the rest of the ensemble cast, which includes Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter (who provide an inspired comic turn as roguish hoteliers the Thenardiers) and Amanda Seyfried and Eddie Redmayne – both delivering assured performances as lovers Cosette and Marius.
Visually, the film is sumptuous, with vivid blues and reds drenching many shots, spectacular costumes and a number of beautifully executed aerial sequences – as when Valjean rips up his convict’s papers and scatters them to the wind, with the pieces eddying upwards before dispersing to reveal a sweeping panorama of mountain peaks.
With its odyssey-like narrative and 158 minute running time, there are moments when the pace slackens and you may find yourself asking ‘another rousing chorus? Really?’, but if you’re willing to stay the course, 'Les Miserables' is a rewarding watch, and certainly something of a tour de force for Tom Hooper.
'Les Miserables' is out in UK cinemas now, through Universal.