Oscar-winning director Tom Hooper wasted hardly any time after the success of The King’s Speech for his next directorial project. Right after his surprise Oscar win, Hooper ambitiously took on an adaptation of Victor Hugo’s French historic novel Les Misérables. This may be a daunting task to a lot of filmmakers due to the fact that Hugo’s original novel, first published in 1862, is widely considered as timeless. The novel is set in 19th century France and centers on themes such as redemption, love, and revolution in great detail.
As history proves, Les Misérables was adapted into a globally successful and acclaimed stage play in 1985.While Les Misérables was a huge success on the stage, it has been difficult for the novel and the play to be cinematically interpreted. It’s been attempted before, but none of the films have been as beloved as the Broadway play. Hooper undeniably put a lot of effort to bring Les Misérables back on the silver screen to attempt to recapture the spectacle. For some reason, it seems like the effort payed off due to the fact that the film was nominated for a total of 8 Oscars and won 3. The film opens in the year 1815 and, as the opening title suggests, it’s been twenty- six years since the start of the French Revolution. The opening shot begins with a battle-torn French flag in the sea as the camera sweeps across to reveal prisoners pulling in a large sea vessel. It as at this point when we are introduced to Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) using every ounce of strength he has to help pull in the vessel. His clothes are torn, his hair is unevenly shaved, his beard is thick, and his eyes are intimidatingly blood shot.
Jean has been a prisoner for 19 years just for stealing a loaf of bread to provide for his sister’s struggling family. Every prisoner pulling in the ship, including Jean himself, appear to be dehumanized. At last, after 19 years, he is released from prison on parole by a rigid lawman by the name of Javert (Russell Crowe). Javert warns Jean that as long as he’s on parole, he’ll always be considered a danger. As Jean tries to implement himself back in society, he’s unable to find work or even a place to sleep. The only act of kindness he receives is by a bishop who gives Jean a warm meal and a warm bed to sleep in. Jean attempts to steal a bag full of silver from the bishop in the middle of the night as he plans his escape but doesn’t get very far. Out of an act of kindness or perhaps sympathy, the clergyman forgives Jean and lets him on his way of redemption. Jean soon realizes that he must turn his life around.
The film flashes forward eight years. It’s now 1823 and Jean has gone on with his life but has violated his parole in doing so. He has lived the last few years on the run. He’s now the mayor of a small town who’s struggling economically. It appears as if Jean has turned his life around but is still haunted by his past because he discovers that Javert is tracking him down to arrest him for violating parole so many years ago. Jean encounters one his factory workers, the struggling Fantine (Anne Hathaway). After being thrown out from her job at the factory, she has her head shaven and forced into prostitution. Fantine left her daughter Cosette in the care of two caretakers. After a fateful encounter, Jean feels a great amount of sympathy towards Fantine and forms a connection with her. He promises Fantine that he’ll find Cosette and keep her in his care. Much of the film’s third act takes place years later after the events during the first half of the film. Cosette is grows into a beautiful young woman and Jean is narrowly trying to avoid Javert who’s closing in. This all takes place as a violent uprising begins.
First and foremost, as you’ve probably read many of times before, there is minimal spoken dialogue throughout the film. This may be a cause for concern for those who aren’t necessarily fans of the musical genre. The characters interact and speak with one another through song, which makes certain scenes that are suppose to be dramatic seem to be a bit more cartoonish. Accept the warning and make sure to listen in closely, otherwise you may miss out on certain plot elements and developments. It’s easy to get use to and the dialogue is audible even through song. All of this may seem tedious if you’re not a fan of musicals but thankfully the film has a supremely talented cast of performers that ultimately keep the film from complete mediocrity.
To capture a sense of realism, Hooper captured each actor’s singing performance live in front of the camera as they were wearing hidden earpieces playing the score during the particular scene. It is because of the decision that ended up making the performances seem raw rather than have the songs be edited in post-production to make the performances more “polished”. To me, the performances and the singing worked because of the rawness. One of the most interesting aspects of the songs throughout the film is the fact that most of the songs served more as internal monologues more so than dialogue spoken between characters. The rendition of “I Dreamed a Dream” performed by Anne Hathaway was astounding because of the sheer amount of emotion and vulnerability displayed not only in her eyes but also in her singing voice. It felt real and in the moment and I think that’s exactly what Hooper was going for throughout the film.
This is by far Hugh Jackman‘s best performance yet. His performance as Jean Valjean is mesmerizing. Throughout the lengthy running time, he spills out so much emotion from not only his facial expressions but also his voice. It doesn’t surprise me in the least that he was nominated for Best Actor. In all honesty, if it wasn’t already a strong category, he probably could’ve won the Oscar back in February. The other great performance in the film is, of course, Anne Hathaway. She easily deserved the Oscar she won for her portrayal of Fantine. The character of Fantine is struggling and an emotional wreck. Hathaway became almost skeletal to convey that sense of struggle that Fantine was experiencing and poured out the emotion to convey the hell that Fantine was living. It doesn’t go without mentioning that the fairly unknown Eddie Redmayne was another highlight of the film. He portrays Marius, a revolutionist who falls in love with the older Cosette (Amanda Seyfried) in the second half of the film.
During the film’s theatrical release, critics and even fans nitpicked Russell Crowe’s performance and mentioned that he lacked the vocal chords to fit in with the rest of the performers. I’m going to go as far as to proclaim that while his performance lacks in comparison to the other cast member’s performances, his voice actually fits with his character and carried that sense of raw realism that Hooper had intended. Overall, I had no problems with Russell Crowe in the film. The ever-so-recognizable Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen appear in the film as Cosette’s caretakers. Their appearance and performances in the film seem to stem directly from a below average Tim Burton film. Their characters seemed far too quirky and comedic for such a tragic tale. Although I understand that the two characters were intended for some brief comedic relief, they both seemed far too out of place in the overall scope of the narrative.
One of my first thoughts that came to mind after seeing the film was that there is such a thing as “over-directing”. I got a sense that Tom Hooper tried too hard to have a stylistic approach while trying to maintain ambitious material. The extensive use of fish eye lenses and extreme close-ups worked in certain instances but didn’t work when extensively used. Let’s just hope that the use of fish eye lenses doesn’t become a directorial trademark like the lens flares in the work of J.J. Abrams. Besides the over-directing, the narrative is a bit too melodramatic for my taste. The strong performances are what make the film avoid mediocrity, but the melodramatic narrative is not exactly what I would call a “spectacle”, no matter how theatrical the film is.
Video (1080p HD Transfer): Universal’s 1080p high-definition transfer is absolutely stunning. The landscapes are rich in clarity. Tom Hooper’s over-indulgence on close-up shots throughout the film reveal the smallest of details of each character’s facial features. The blood, sweat, and tears are all visible in the finest of detail. Even during low-lit scenes, the imagery is so detailed that a moment is never lost. Les Misérables is a visually appealing film that looks even more stunning in high-definition.
Audio (DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 Track): As expected, the audio is the true champion of the Blu-ray. Universal has provided a flawless DTS-HD Master Audio track that makes the viewing of the film a spectacular experience. The lyrics sung by each of the actors are easy to understand even when mixed with ambient sounds. The audio track of the Blu-ray also flawlessly enhances the tremendous score of the film.
The special features provided on the Blu-ray of Les Misérables are presented in high-definition.
- Feature Commentary with Director Tom Hooper
- Les Misérables: A Revolutionary Approach Documentary
- The Stars of Les Misérables
- The West End Connection
- Creating the Perfect Paris
- Les Misérables On Location
- Battle at the Barricade
- Les Misérables Singing Live
- The Original Masterwork: Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables
- My Scenes Feature
- DVD Copy
- Digital Copy
- Ultraviolet Digital Copy
The Les Misérables Blu-ray certainly doesn’t lack on special features. The only disappointing factor is the fact that none of the actors joined director Tom Hooper for the audio commentary. The Les Misérables: A Revolutionary Approach is an hour-long documentary that is broken up into 6 different sections that explore elements of the production, the casting, and the raw live-performances displayed in the film. The sections aren’t too in-depth but still offer interesting tidbits about the production, casting, and themes. The Original Masterwork: Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables documentary is basically just Tom Hooper discussing themes and elements of the original novel written by Victor Hugo. There’s also a “My Scenes” feature offered in the extras where viewers can bookmark their favorite scenes from the film.
In terms of its performances, soundtrack, theatrics, and production design, Les Misérables is a complete success. The staging of the battle scenes was fantastic and the world in which the film is set in is brought to life due to fantastic production design. Clocking in at 2 and a half hours, Les Misérables is unfortunately an overdrawn film that felt a little too dull to be based on a beloved Broadway play. The performances and the score are what ultimately save the film. The over-directing by Hooper and the narrative dive into melodramatic territory serve as the films main flaws. As mentioned earlier, director Tom Hooper undeniably put a lot of effort to bring Les Misérables back on the silver screen to recapture the spectacle. Despite the effort, the end result was an over-bloated musical that managed to capture emotion due to the strong performances but ultimately failed to dazzle.
Click here to purchase Les Misérables on Blu-ray/DVD/Ultraviolet Digital Copy.
The Blu-ray was released on March 22nd, 2013.