(Published in The New Sunday Express, on January 20, 2013)
Cast: Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, Amanda Seyfriend, Anne Hathaway, Helena Bonham Carter, Sacha Baron Cohen and others
Director: Tom Hooper
Rating: 4 stars
In the musical version of Les Misérables, the opening scene, with the chain gang Jean Valjean belongs to, instantly sets the tone for the story – it gives us gooseflesh, makes our shoulders ache, our stomachs turn. In the film version, the song Look Down is that much bigger. With the sea for a backdrop, the anonymity, despair, shackled life, and insignificance of the prisoners seems that much more real. We barely recognise Hugh Jackman among them. Looking down from the great height that will symbolise his stance throughout the film is Inspector Javert (Russell Crowe).
The film takes us from 1815 to the Revolt of 1832, and begins 19 years into the sentence Valjean – or ‘24601’ as he is branded – is serving for stealing a loaf of bread to save his sister’s son. The wonderfully-crafted musical has been running for over 25 years across the Palais de Sports, the West End, and Broadway. In converting it to celluloid, the only factors that change are the production values and the cast. The sets, costumes, and palette have been so carefully created that we lose all sense of this being a modern-day production. It helps that the language is more or less archaic, and the fact that the dialogues are sung and not spoken does away with modern inflections.
But what stands out most about the film is Hugh Jackman’s superlative brilliance in the role of Jean Valjean. The character is an odd mix of strength and vulnerability, of faith and paranoia, of goodness and vanity. And Jackman’s performance shows us just how much he has absorbed Valjean into himself. The constant worry that comes with a life on the run comes through in a crinkle of the forehead, a twitch of the eyelids, a shudder of the mouth. The gamut of expressions that Valjean must take on, as he meets kindness for the first time, as he’s shamed by his temptations, as he evades the determined tailing of Javert, as he’s filled with remorse at the fate Fantine (Anne Hathaway) suffers, as he finds purpose in raising Cosette (Amanda Seyfried), as he confronts all his demons in seeking out Marius (Eddie Redmayne), play easily on Jackman’s face, and he even seems to age with the character. His rendering of Who Am I? deserves special mention – at the crescendo, we feel an urge to give him a standing ovation as we would do if he were on stage.
Russell Crowe as Javert doesn’t test his vocal range much, except in his last song, but portrays his menacing presence with skill. With his principles at odds with his conscience, we find ourselves not hating Javert, but regarding him as Valjean does – a man who must do his duty. While Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter do their comic bit as the Thénardiers very nicely, especially in the songMaster of the House, the humour does eventually get laboured.
The women in the lead roles are sorely disappointing. Though Anne Hathaway and Amanda Seyfried are apparently trained opera singers, you wouldn’t know it – between Hathaway’s thin rendition of the powerful I Dreamed a Dream and Seyfried’s struggle to find the right key, one wishes the casting directors had chosen better singers. The roles are secondary, and didn’t need stars. Their stilted singing ruins the remarkable music design of the film, and the delicate balance of harmonies in the songs.
The Verdict: Hugh Jackman’s acting makes the film a worthy watch, even in a cinema filled with hooting teenagers and hecklers in the ten-rupee seats.