‘Les Miserables’ will leave you wanting more

Published 10:15 am Friday, January 4, 2013

Rating: 4.5 out of 5 thumbs up

Living up to expectations is frequently an unrealistic and an unfair measure.

The 1985 musical play adaptation of Victor Hugo’s novel, “Les Miserables,” set such a high water mark for English-speaking audiences, that creating a superior musical film adaptation would be highly improbable even if directed by the 2010 Academy Award-winning director, Tom Hooper for “The King’s Speech.

Comparisons aside, hesitant audiences need to be reminded that the film is truly a musical drama with a soaring musical score. Most should leave the theater emotionally moved and well satisfied by this ambitious 2½-hour condensation of Hugo’s 1,200-page classic, which was written in 1862.

The setting is the squalor that was much of Paris in the early 1800s, some 20 years after the French Revolution. While the scope of Paris is adequately captured under Hooper’s direction, the city’s sweeping backdrop becomes secondary to the overwhelming plight of the central characters.

It is a clear choice that has been made by the director through a reliance on facial close-ups to vicariously engage his audience.

The close-up technique is on display within the opening number “Look Down!” sung by prisoner and protagonist Jean Valjean, played by Australian actor Hugh Jackman.

Valjean’s is our pain as he attempts to overturn a shipwreck while being roped to a chain gang. With each pull, the burden of imprisonment and the strain of the task become palpable and are etched on a heavily lined face.

In the hands of such a skilled director as Hooper, the camera technique binds the audience emotionally to the tragic suffering and ultimate redemption that is the essence of Hugo’s tale.

Unlike most film musicals which are pre-recorded, Hooper had his actors sing live with external microphones, which later were removed with airbrush technology.

Surprisingly serviceable voices appear from big name movie stars. Jackman’s background in musical theater, including Broadway’s “Oklahoma” and his powerful tenor are more than serviceable as Jean Valjean. His rich vocals and strong physique lend a larger-than-life presence that is consistent with Hugo’s central character.

Jackman’s rendition of “Bring Him Home” combines strength with an emotional tenderness that is enviable.

Anne Hathaway is superb as the downtrodden Fantine. Her “I Dreamed a Dream” is a showstopper.

Unfortunately for actor Russell Crowe as the haunted inspector Javert who spends a lifetime bitterly tracking Valjean, strong acting and resplendent costumes cannot overcome weak vocals. Try as he might, he is miscast.

In supporting roles, Amanda Seyfried (“Mamma Mia, Chloe”) as Cosette and Eddie Redmayne (“My Week with Marilyn”) as Marius display both fine acting and outstanding voices.

Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen provide timely comic relief with their roles as the low-life Thenardier’s.

Samantha Barks adds another powerful voice and makes her film debut while reprising her Broadway role as Eponine.

The audience can also spot the West End and Broadway’s original (1986 & 87) Jean Valjean, actor Colm Wilkinson, who appears as the caring bishop and subsequently sets Jackman on his path to redemption; Wilkinson as Jean Valjean and Barks as Eponine can be viewed on WHRO’s periodic television repeat of its 25th Les Miserables Broadway Anniversary.

By taking risks through the use of extensive actor close-ups and live singing, Director Tom Hooper has brought out the best from superb acting talent and an outstanding musical score. He has achieved the unlikely task of bringing a highly successful musical play to film.

“Les Miserables” will likely be in Oscar contention for at least Best Picture, Best Actor, Supporting Actor and Actresses and Best Director.

Area audiences have an opportunity to watch masterful movie making that is based on a classic novel with universal appeal. Despite the emotional roller-coaster, audiences will leave the theater wanting for more.

“Les Miserables” is rated PG-13 and playing in most Hampton Roads Theaters.

CHUCK LILLEY of Franklin is a retired corporate manager. His email address is chulill@yahoo.com.