This film is something special. It really is something. It’s incredibly difficult to take a musical containing fewer than ten spoken words and mold a coherent and involving narrative presence. Filming musicals is a long tradition, and few have done it as well as is done here. The film runs a hefty 152 minutes, but I found myself enthralled in every minute and fully able to understand the events within the story, an issue I have always found with the musical. Out of those 152 minutes, probably 151.5 include some sort of music, be it interlude or song, posing an immense challenge of telling this monstrous story understandably. Director Tom Hooper completely succeeds, however.
Opinions vary on the film, making it probably the most divisive film that will be nominated for Best Picture this year. Hooper’s direction has been equally lauded and maligned, as has Danny Cohen’s cinematography. Personally, I thought both succeeded quite well. Cohen’s cinematography is gorgeous. His work on The King’s Speech was underrated in its inventiveness. Placing his subjects at the edges of his frames had pretty much never been so fully utilized as there. Here, though, he takes the exact opposite approach, centering completely on his subjects. In fact, he zeros in on them, completely shutting out the massive narrative scope to create touching scenes (many of which are single-takes and 2-3 minutes long). He also uses unusual filming angles askew from the norm occasionally, but they always worked for me (the beauty of the art direction and stark contrasts in color palettes can’t hurt, either). Hooper’s direction is likewise great. He masterfully crafts this complicated, overlapping narrative into a brilliantly understandable and cohesive story.
The adaptation is nothing special. There really is more work for the director in adaptation than on the screenwriter. With so many songs and so few words, the staging is far more important, and Hooper stages wonderfully. Some things I have read have maligned his staging of various scenes, especially Marius’ Empty Chairs at Empty Tables. Frankly I had always imagined it being sung at tables, but Hooper doesn’t stage it like that, instead opting for a less heartstring-pulling locale and filmmaking technique, a much-appreciated decision given the highly emotional state of the song and musical. The thing that makes the emotion of the musical translate so well is Hooper’s decision to record everything live. Musicals have always previously been recorded 2-3 months prior to filming, forcing actors to make their acting decisions oftentimes before they meet many of their costars and definitely before they every get on set. Recording live allowed actual acting.
The performances are what really make the film work. Hugh Jackman gives by far his career-best work, an honor which was previously held by his work in The Prestige. He endows Jean Valjean with such true emotion, such passionate hatred, honest appreciation, and deep love. Not only that but his renditions of Valjean’s Soliloquy, Suddenly (a new song some found lackluster, but that I quite enjoyed), and Bring Him Home (especially this one) are absolute brilliance.
Russell Crowe plays Javert and gives his best performance in a several years, but he hasn’t really done anything in recent years. Honestly, he’s the weak link here, mostly because his voice just isn’t nearly as good or as fine-tuned as everybody else’s. His less-fluid, more regimented syllabic word break-up is appropriate for his character, but his untrained voice is simply unable to evoke the kind of emotion required of his part. I wasn’t actually averse to his performance as some were, but I did feel a better voice could have pulled off a heart-breaking suicide scene, whereas Crowe’s simply is just there.
Anne Hathaway, of course, is magnificent as Fantine as has been said in so many ways by so many others. Her show-stopping rendition of I Dreamed a Dream is astonishing and will almost undoubtedly win her the Supporting Actress Oscar.
The best supporting male performance, surprisingly, is given by Eddie Redmayne as Marius. The part is emotional to begin with, and Redmayne, his absolutely gorgeous voice included, makes the absolute most of every moment. His has pretty much earned a spot on my personal Oscar ballot, though he will almost undoubtedly be left off of the final Oscar ballot.
Samantha Barks, the current West End Éponine, reprises her role her and gives a great performance that trumpets her arrival on the film stage. Her work has earned her a spot on my personal Oscar ballot for the time being.
As the Thénardiers, Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter try their very best to steal the movie, and they nearly succeed, or rather, Cohen nearly succeeds. He steals every scene from Carter and almost steals the whole film, but not quite. He is absolutely priceless.
Amanda Seyfried is fine as Cosette, but never really becomes anything all that special. It’s not really that much of a character to begin with, but I also found Seyfried’s voice to be far too immature. I know she’s supposed to be young, but she sounded like she was ten, not seventeen or eighteen.
Even the smaller roles are well-filled. Aaron Tveit, best known to Broadway followers for his roles in Next to Normal and Catch Me If You Can, he fulfills his role as Enjolras well. Isabelle Allen is good as the young Cosette and Daniel Huttlestone gives a great performance as Gavroche.
As I hope is clear, I loved every minute of this movie. It is storytelling at its most difficult and finest as a result. ★★★★★ out of ★★★★★.