The new adaptation of “Les Miserables” is one of those big-budgeted, star-studded films that everyone expects the world of but rarely lives up to the bar preemptively set for it.
“Les Mis” soars over that bar like a gold-medal-winning Olympic pole vaulter. It makes a slam-dunk like LeBron James. It hits a home run so far out of the park it makes Babe Ruth look like he’s only making base hits.
I may be exaggerating slightly, but “Les Mis” really is great. Almost entirely faithful to the 1980s musical adaptation of Victor Hugo’s classic novel, “Les Mis” casts Hugh Jackman as the show’s protagonist, Jean Valjean. On the last day of his 19-year imprisonment for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his sister’s starving child (five years for the theft and 14 for his escape attempts), Valjean is handed his parole papers and re-enters the world, but quickly finds that his desperate indiscretion has marked him as a criminal for life. He, too, begins to mark himself with that identity, and absconds in the night from a church where he has been given food and shelter with the parsonage’s silver.
He is quickly caught, though, and soldiers return him and the stolen goods to the church for identification by the bishop. The bishop tells the authorities the silver was a gift, thereby saving Valjean from returning to prison for breaking his parole. In return for his silence, as well as the silver, the bishop tells Valjean to use the precious metal to help him build an honest life.
Eight years later, Valjean has assumed another identity and founded a thriving manufacturing business. Though a respected member of the community, Valjean still fears discovery, especially when he is paid a visit by Inspector Javert (Russell Crowe), who was a prison guard during Valjean’s incarceration, and who suspects Valjean’s true identity. He lacks evidence until Valjean confesses himself to save another man who has been arrested for suspicion of being Valjean.
Valjean is repentant and willing to serve his time, but runs from Javert in order to fulfill a promise he gave to a dying Fantine (Anne Hathaway), a former employee at his factory who was forced to turn to prostitution to support her daughter after she was fired.
Valjean retrieves the girl from the inn where Fantine had been paying to have her stay and cared for, run by the greedy and unscrupulous Thenardiers (Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter). Hotly pursued by Javert, Valjean takes on a new identity and builds a life with the child.
Nine years later, Cosette (Amanda Seyfried) falls in love with Marius (Eddie Redmayne), a young man born in privilege but who is committed to a revolutionary cause. Their time together is short, though, as Valjean believes they are again being chased by Javert when the revolutionaries execute their plans to overthrow the government. Valjean and Cosette move, with the intention of fleeing to England, but Marius sends her a note that is intercepted by Valjean. Valjean anonymously joins the revolutionaries with the intent of finding out what sort of man his adoptive daughter’s suitor is, and finds Javert a prisoner of the group. Valjean is given the chance to kill Javert, but lets him go, leading Javert to question whether this parole-breaker is still a criminal.
The scenery is gorgeous but gritty enough to believably be 19thcentury Paris, and the occasional stylized whimsy is never overdone. The acting is superb throughout, and the characters feel more lifelike than in any other adaptation of the book I’ve seen. I have read the book, I’ve seen the 1998 film adaptation and I’ve seen several productions of the musical — this is easily the best version. The characters were universally more clear and more realistic than in any previous version I’ve seen. I honestly feel I’ve got a better grasp on some of Hugo’s more covert themes than I did before.
The quality of singing is also great, especially since the actors sang live while recording verses singing in a studio and having that dubbed in later, but varies more. Hathaway, Redmayne and Aaron Tveit as Enjolras were all very good. Samantha Barks, reprising her role as Eponine from PBS’s “Les Miserables in Concert: The 25th Anniversary,” had the pipes for a much bolder character but kept her performance light, and Seyfried more or less held her own. Crowe’s performance was the weakest spot, because although his acting was great and he hit all the right notes, his voice tended to lack depth and conviction. Now, for Jackman. There is a reason that man won a Tony.
If the movie had been called “A Camera Following Around Hugh Jackman Singing,” I don’t think I would have gotten sick of him even then. This is not because of any celebrity crush — he was just that good (on a side note, mass props go to costume and makeup for their crazy uglification skills). His singing was every bit as great as his acting, which was incredible. He’s already been nominated for several awards, and awards season has barely begun. If he’s not nominated for just about everything he qualifies for, there is no justice in Hollywood.
That actually applies to the entire show. If “Les Mis,” which has been nominated for and even won some awards already, is not at least nominated all over the place, they might as well stop handing out awards, because they clearly don’t mean a thing. “Les Mis” wasn’t completely perfect, but it was as close to perfect as I’ve ever seen.