From the opening scene of the film version of ‘Les Miserables’ to its surging climax, writes Gill Paltridge, this is a film which can leave the audience almost stunned. So grand is its scale in terms of human emotions and experiences, so dramatic in its visual impact and so evocative in its music, it seems to go beyond what is truly comprehensible and leaves a feeling that, somehow, we inhabit a different world from the one presented on screen – or perhaps have missed out on something extraordinary.
But it most certainly stirs. Victor Hugo’s epic novel and its stage adaptation – which is now, officially, the world’s longest running musical – have been translated to the screen by a largely British team, directed by Tim Hooper of ‘The King’s Speech’ fame. The opening sequence in which dozens of shackled prisoners haul a stricken galleon into a dry dock by hand is simply awesome. And from that moment the film doesn’t let you go. Every conceivable extreme in human experience is played out in the narrative, assisted by Claude-Michel Schonberg’s immense score that drives the emotional engine of the film.
Fine performances from Hugh Jackman – who won Best Actor at the Golden Globe awards – as Valjean, Russell Crowe as the deeply conflicted Javert, Anne Hathaway as the waif-like Fantine and Eddie Redmayne – for once not totally upstaged by his own photogenic mouth – as Marius are taken to remarkable and unexpected heights by the quality of their singing. These are actors, trained by vocal coaches who deserve a couple of Oscars in their own right, required to sing ‘live’ rather that dubbed or pre-recorded, in extreme close-up for long continuous takes and, in doing so, to rack up some intensely compelling – and convincing – emotions. As a little light-relief, there are exuberantly zany performances from Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter (reprising her ‘mad-woman escaped from the attic’ performance once again) as the repugnant but colourfully crooked Thenardies
The film is rightly nominated for a number of awards; direction, production, costume, design and, above all, cinematography, are worthy of honours, as are the performances of Crowe and Jackman. The British film industry too should be proud of this film.
Hugo’s novel is, in itself, an exploration of the most extreme forms of human experience which, in our time, perhaps only those who have been involved in such urgent and heightened events such as the Arab Spring – or the Syrian uprising – can truly comprehend. The film urges us to engage with those extremes and, in a vicarious way, succeeds, but it risks appealing to sentiments too. As simply a film, though, it is certainly extraordinary.
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