JANUARY, with its attendant blues, might seem an odd month to release a movie about crime, punishment, redemption, and man's inhumanity to man in general. Post-Christmas, heaven knows we're all Les Miserables now.
But as many from Victor Hugo to Dickens to the creators of Shameless have discovered, there's nowt so much fun as other people's misery, and Tom Hooper's adaptation of the hit stage musical, set in post-revolutionary France, offers pleasure by the barricade-load.
Fans wondering if Hooper has done the business can rest easy; everyone else can ready themselves to be pleasantly surprised. Although Hooper has taken the movie musical to a new extreme – there is even more singing and less dialogue here than in the average musical – his experiment, save for the ridiculously-long running time, works.
The tale begins in 1815 with the king back on the French throne. Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) is about to be released from prison after a 19-year stretch for stealing bread for a starving child (they didn't mess around with law ' n' order in those days). The epic opening scene, set on a work ship as the convicts haul the boat to port, is the first reassuring sign that Hooper, the director of The King's Speech, is thinking like a movie maker. Under big skies, as the rain lashes and lines of galley slaves give their last ounce of will to the communal effort, we can see Hooper is not going to be content just to pick up the stage musical and plonk it on the screen.
As he leaves the ship, prisoner 24601 is reminded by police inspector Javert (Russell Crowe) that he is a free man on paper only. He will always be a convict in the eyes of Javert. All this is conveyed through song rather than the spoken word. It is the second sign that Hooper is determined to "out-musical" what has gone before. It is also at this point that anyone allergic to musicals might roll their eyes ceiling-wards.
Since it is not natural for people to sing to each other instead of speaking, musicals have to ease the viewer into this alternative reality. Sometimes they do so by having characters cue up a song via a conversation or setting, as in Singin' in the Rain when Gene Kelly and company round off a gab in the kitchen about putting on a musical by noting that it's a new day. Suddenly, we're off and running into Good Morning, no questions asked. At other times, the presence of a certain star is enough. No-one ever expected Liza Minnelli to open her mouth and recite Shakespeare.
In Les Miserables, Hooper gives no quarter. It's a case of "Here is Russell Crowe, singing to Hugh Jackman, get over it". How easy it is to do so depends on the strength of the singer – everyone sings live rather than lip-synchs – and the song. Jackman is to the musical born. As for Crowe, let's just say his singing voice is better than the Nottingham accent he deployed in Robin Hood.
Next to exercise her tonsils is Anne Hathaway, playing Fantine, the Paris factory worker who turns in desperation to prostitution to support her child, Cosette. Hathaway's big number, of course, is I Dreamed a Dream, a song she renders in a suitably heart-rending fashion. Susan Boyle would approve, I think.
Hooper makes no attempt to disguise Fantine's plight, laying her destitution bare. In general, he sloshes enough mud and misery around to bring on an attack of the glums in even the sunniest viewer. The colours of the film alone, the rainy greys and sludgy browns, are oppressive.
He wisely lightens the mood by bringing on that gruesome but highly amusing twosome, the Thenardiers (Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen). Between a terrifically catchy song, Master of the House, and slapstick comedy, the tavern owners who are meant to be looking after Fantine's daughter liven things up no end.
The film dips in the middle as the second part of the story – Cosette grows up, unrest in Paris begins again – takes shape. After a while, the songs begin to melt into one. But then along comes a song, or a performer, that sets off fireworks, making the movie a spectacle of light and lyricism once more.
The outstanding Jackman is such a performer from first to last, followed by Hathaway. But it's one of the minor characters, the older Eponine, daughter of the Thenardiers, who blows the doors off this musical. Played by Samantha Barks, her voice is pure, startling, and deeply moving.
The tale carries on, lingering at the barricades for a while, to its operatic end, an end that could and should have arrived well under the two and a half hour mark. But that's musicals and revolutions for you, no-one wants such good times set in bad times to end.
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