Les MisÚrables (2012)

Starring: Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, Anne Hathaway, Eddie Redmayne, Amanda Seyfried, Sacha Baron Cohen, Helena Bonham Carter, Samantha Barks, Aaron Tveit, Daniel Huttlestone

Directed by: Tom Hooper

Rating: 1 2 3 4

Russell Crowe as Javert and Hugh Jackman as Jean Valjean in Les Misérables

I've never seen the musical of Les Misérables. When I was a teenager, I had a tape of the original RSC production and I knew all the words off by heart, but I still hadn't much of a clue as to what was going on.

Well, now I do (more or less) and am feeling fairly emotionally wrung out by the whole, long, drawn out story of the fall and rise and fall again of Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman), a felon forced into 19 years of slavery for stealing a loaf of bread, who breaks parole only to find himself hunted down patiently and ruthlessly by law man Inspector Javert (Russell Crowe). On the streets he meets a penniless prostitute, Fantine (Anne Hathaway), whose child Cosette he promises to find and rear as his own. But as dissatisfaction once again growls on the streets of post-revolutionary Paris and Javert closes in, can he protect her from the gathering storm?

Anne Hathaway as Fantine in Les Misérables

It'll take you a fairly long time to find out, but it's a journey well worth taking, even if the most powerful, spine-tingling, emotion-wringing moment of all, when Anne Hathaway wrenches the now infamous 'I Dreamed a Dream' from a pit of despair in her stomach and leaves the audience reeling, is over in the first quarter of the film.

Not that Hugh Jackman doesn't give it all he's got, his physical transformation from desperate, hollow-eyed prisoner to comfortable gent about town to ageing recluse as impressive as his committed singing performance. Russell Crowe is well out of his vocal depth, but is nonetheless convincing as the dogged Inspector – although as with Ridley Scott's The Duellists, I still don't really understand why he lets his obsession with destroying another man ruin his own life. I guess it must be a man thing...

Amanda Seyfried is sweetly pretty and tremulously soprano as Cosette, while stage star Samantha Barks turns in a fine performance as Eponine, a moving, rain-soaked 'On My Own' providing another show-stopping moment. Light relief (yes, believe it or not there is some) comes courtesy of Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter's gloriously chaotic double act, M. et Mme Thenardier, villainous Dickensian innkeepers who pick a pocket or twenty to keep their gaudily bewigged heads above water and, who, like cockroaches, manage to survive everything thrown at them.

Eddie Redmayne as Marius and Amanda Seyfried as Cosette

But the real surprise for me was Brit heart-throb Eddie Redmayne who, as idealistic student/Cosette's love interest Marius, turns out to have a lovely, warm, rich singing voice – maybe I can finally stop thinking of him as Builder Jack from Pillars of the Earth...

The film looks great, although the combination of stagey looking sets and sweeping location shots doesn't always work, and of course the tunes are eminently hummable, although (again) by the end you can't help thinking you've heard enough recitative – the big numbers rather dry up after a sensational ensemble 'One Day More'.

I'm still not entirely sure I understand what's going on either: why, for example, does Jean Valjean insist on living right under Javert's nose instead of fleeing the country at the earliest opportunity? Why doesn't Fantine try to get another job, instead of seemingly sinking into the gutter over night? What are the handsome young students actually hoping to achieve by surrounding a pub with broken chairs and tables and taking on the might of the French army with nothing but a few rifles and an enterprising street urchin to defend themselves? Why doesn't Eponine's dress have any sleeves? The answer to these questions may well lie in Victor Hugo's weighty novel (well, maybe not that last one) but for now I think I might just stick to the musical.

Because there's no doubt Les Misérables is a powerhouse of film, packing a forceful emotional punch, and as a film of a musical (unlike the laughable Phantom of the Opera) it makes the transition from stage melodramatics to close-up emotion credibly. It's moving, engrossing, stirring and pleasingly gritty-looking (there are no Panthene mines in mid-18th century Paris – although Marius must have got his hair wax somewhere – but lots of cold sores, ragged nails, runny noses and brown, stained teeth). If they'd cut out twenty minutes of repetitive sung dialogue, it would have been nigh on perfect.

And finally, yes, it paints a bleak picture of human existence (it's not called Les Misérables for nothing), in which life is a grim, relentless struggle from cradle to grave – a picture that has uncomfortable resonance in today's 'tough economic climate' (as they say). But the film's final message is one of hope: that a life lived with love is never wasted.

At the end of the day we're another day older, but we're also wiser for remembering that.

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