Monday, 21 January 2013

The Oscar nominees came in recently and I’m afraid to say that I looked at the list and thought “I’ve only seen one of the Best Picture nominees.” On further inspection, there was good reason for this – half of them hadn’t come out in Britain yet. Well, now I’ve seen one more, and, following up from the promise at the end of my Gangster Squad review, I can certainly understand why Les Miserables is worthy of the nomination. 

This is the latest film from Tom Hooper, who’s already taken that big award with The King’s Speech and is raising his ambitions once again with a large-scale, clearly high-budgeted adaptation of the hit musical set against the backdrop of the French Revolution. 

Les Miserables tells the story of Jean Valjean, an escaped convict who makes a new life for himself and finds himself protecting Cosette, the daughter of penniless prostitute Fantine, as his past catches up with him in the form of the obsessive and duty-bound Inspector Javert. 

With his background in musical theatre, Hugh Jackman is a perfect choice to lead the cast as Valjean, brilliantly capturing the fugitive’s strong character arc and highlighting both his darker and more caring sides. Though it may not always seem like it, Valjean is a good man at heart, and so is an easy character to get behind and one who ties all the plot lines together.

The stand out performance, however, is Anne Hathaway, who gives a brief yet beautiful and tear-jerking performance as Fantine. If you're not moved by her ‘I Dreamed A Dream’, you're not human – shot in close up, she genuinely looks like a woman who is destitute and dying, yet still she captures the camera’s attention and shows that she can sing really well. This scene on its own pretty much guarantees her an Oscar, and especially considering her admirable public refusal to speak about how she lost weight for the role, she deserves all the praise she can get. 

If it’s sounding a little too morbid so far, Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter provide scene-stealing comic relief as unscrupulous innkeeping couple the Thénardiers. Their fast, jaunty number ‘Master of the House’ is up there with ‘I Dreamed A Dream’ and ‘One Day More’ as  a highlight of the musical. 

The one weak link, however, is Russell Crowe, whose singing is not much better than his Robin Hood accent (but don’t tell him I said that). I also can’t get out of my head the fact that one of his costumes makes him look like a Thunderbird and that his character poster features the quote ‘I am the law”, which is Judge Dredd’s catchphrase. As much as I’d be open-minded to the idea of a Thunderbirds-Dredd crossover starring Mr Crowe, that’s not a good way to describe Les Mis.

In terms of the narrative, my only problem is the love story between Cosette and revolutionary Marius, which, compared to the arcs of the other characters, is a little twee. I guess I'm too cynical to believe in love at first sight.

Nevertheless, Hooper once again shows he’s talented at getting great performances out of actors, made even more remarkable by the unusual fact that the singing was mostly recorded on set without ADR. To differentiate the film from the stage production, the director uses a lot of wide, sweeping, action-packed shots to establish an epic scale, alongside a lot of close-ups, getting close to the characters’ thoughts and expressions. In the end, that’s what great filmmaking is about – epic and enthralling backdrops to captivating, intimate personal stories. Les Miserables is tragic and heartbreaking but simultaneously immensely cheering; one of those films where you leave with a tear in your eye, a smile on your face, and an overwhelming urge to tell everyone about it.


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