I’m not a fan of musical theater – I’ve never really been able to put my finger on it but there is something about the genre that has always left me a little cold. All that emotion just makes something in my slightly repressed British psyche curl up. Thus, I approached Tom Hooper’s new adaptation of the hugely successful stage show with a healthy degree of caution. The show, based on the Victor Hugo novel of the same name, has a fanatical fan base which only drove my cynicism higher. Thankfully though, I can report that the film is very good. Really good – this is pretty much the highest praise that I can give a form that I am no fan of, so allow me to explain.
From the opening frames of the film it is made clear that subtly and quietness has no place in this movie – the film bludgeons you into feeling, big, bold emotions. Everything that the film touches on is a HUGE issue, themes of death, love, grief, guilt, salvation, redemption. At the film’s closing the sound heard around the theater was a collective sigh – this is film making as cathartic, spiritual therapy and if you have ever wanted to see the stage show I cannot recommend this highly enough. If you’re a fan of brilliant, passionate film making go see this too.
For those unfamiliar with the plot, I’ll try and give a brief outline without any major spoilers. In 19th century France the paroled prisoner Jean Valjean breaks the terms of his parole and is chased over the decades by the tenacious Inspector Javert. Valjean reinvents himself and dedicates his life to taking care of Cosette, the daughter of Fatine, a woman who falls on hard times. This, and Cosette’s journey of growing up is set against the background of revolutionary politics and Valjeans journey from hate-filled and angry to a deeply spiritual man at peace with his place in the world.
The cast is nothing less than universally superb. Jackman utilizes all of his skills in musical theater to give an absolutely captivating performance as Jean Valjean, brilliantly conveying the guilt, the rage and the spiritual conversion he goes through. His relationship with Cosette is really well done and Jackman should get credit for proving to a wide audience that musical theater can have dramatically thrilling leads. Russell Crowe as Javert is a revelation, giving the finest performance in the entire film, investing the initially simple character with depth, nobility and a grand sense of tragedy, after a few dodgy film choices it is great to see Crowe back to his powerhouse best. The man can sing too – really, really well. Anne Hathaway as the doomed Fatine conveys the tragedy of her character and her solo is one of the highlights of the whole movie. Other notables include Eddie Redmayne revealing a spectacular singing voice and the new comer Samantha Barks as the tragic and unrequited Éponine.
There are a few minor niggles – the comic relief of Helena Bonham-Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen do start to get a little incongruous in the midst of all the deep theological themes and pulse pounding emoting, and the final third drags in places as the pacing starts to fray a little. The whole thing cannot shake the ephemeral inconsistencies of musical theater but you try and pick holes in the film at your peril. The expert direction from Tom Hooper, (showing the King’s Speech was no fluke) and the beautiful cinematography when combined with the rousing score and sheer scope of the film just batters you into submission. This is a film you cannot fight against – it is by no means perfect but is powerful, beautifully done cinema. It deserves all of the praise that it gets, as it’s well choreographed, amazingly directed and utterly uplifting. Go give it a shot – you might find yourself pleasantly surprised by musical theater. I certainly was.