Les Misérables – review

Tom Hooper's gamble of filming Les Misérables with on-set singing has resulted in a work of unusual power and colour

Asked who was France's greatest poet, André Gide responded with the famously rueful answer: "Victor Hugo, hélas!" Cameron Mackintosh, the impresario who brought Alain Boublil and Jean-Marc Natel's Les Misérables to London and transformed it into a worldwide phenomenon after its mild Parisian success and disastrous British first-night reception, would give a rather more positive response. I was in that first-night audience on 30 September 1985, and shared the general opinion that it was an indifferent show, shallow and somewhat forced in tone. I emerged with only one song planted in my head, Master of the House, sung by Alun Armstrong as Thénardier, the outrageously opportunist innkeeper, a number that struck me as rather like You've Got to Pick a Pocket or Two from Oliver!

I wasn't writing about the play back in 1985, just producing a radio programme in which it was discussed, so I have no words to eat, merely a confession to make. After a gap of nearly 28 years, I've seen Tom Hooper's film of Les Misérables and the scales have fallen from my eyes and ears. On screen at least, it's the best musical I've seen for many years, a magnificent achievement that overwhelmed me from the opening moments of the tormented hero Jean Valjean working with a chain gang to drag a sailing ship into dry dock in 1815 to the finale of his death in a Parisian convent 17 years later following the failure of the 1832 uprising against the repressive monarchy. If at times, as I've suggested, Les Misérables echoes Oliver!, it's an Oliver! with steel teeth and waving a red flag.

Almost everybody, whether they've read Hugo's 1,300-page novel or not, knows the compelling story from the numerous films and broadcast versions. As pared down for the stage, it's about the brutalised ex-convict Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) trying to live a Christian life after being redeemed by the saintly Bishop Myriel, and pursued for nearly two decades by the rigid upholder of the law, Inspector Javert (Russell Crowe). It's a very Victorian tale, both uplifting and sentimental, of deep-dyed villainy, fallen women, mistreated orphans, hidden benefactors and social injustice. And in the film it's treated with a proper seriousness that provides comic relief only through the wicked Dickensian couple, Thénardier (Sacha Baron Cohen) and his slatternly wife (Helena Bonham Carter), both of whom are excellent, as they were in the Tim Burton film of Sondheim's Sweeney Todd.

Several things hold the film together, the most notable being Claude-Michel Schönberg's music and the English lyrics by Herbert Kretzmer, which like Rouben Mamoulian's 1932 Love Me Tonight and Jacques Demy's Les Parapluies de Cherbourg and Les Demoiselles de Rochefort are sung through using rhyming couplets at all times. These lyrics are simple and direct, neither deliberately smart nor particularly witty, but they hold our attention line by line, driving the action forwards, developing the themes, turning the film into a verbally coherent whole. The solos and choral pieces always propel the story and derive their force from the context, so that Fantine (Anne Hathaway), the prostitute whose daughter Cosette is eventually adopted by Valjean, sings I Dreamed a Dream from the depths of her degradation.

Instead of pre-recording the songs and having the actors mouth the words on set, Hooper took the risky course of having them sung and recorded as the cameras rolled. Peter Bogdanovich came a cropper doing this in At Long Last Love. But in Les Misérables it lends an unusual power, intensity and colour to the performances, most especially Jackman's Valjean and Crowe's Javert. This is a fanciful thought, but it may well be that as Australians (or in Crowe's case a New Zealander long resident in Australia) these two actors have a particular feeling for the convict culture that lies behind Hugo's novel.

Although Javert's pursuit of Valjean is the dramatic thread that ties the story together, the political theme is principally linked by men accused of being class traitors, and this is well brought out. The working-class Javert has been corrupted by becoming the unquestioning servant of the ruling class; the student Marius (Eddie Redmayne in fine voice) has found personal salvation by deserting his own class to join the revolution. In Les Misérables the idealists, not the devil, have the best tunes, among them Red and Black and the stirring Do You Hear the People Sing?.

Hooper is also to be congratulated on the integration of the grand set-pieces – the chain gang at work, the chases, the fighting at the barricades during the aborted revolution – with the more contemplative moments, and both parts with the continuous flow of music. In this he's been helped by some gifted collaborators, including production designer Eve Stewart and cinematographer Danny Cohen, who both worked with him on The King's Speech, and the editor, Chris Dickens, whose recent credits include Slumdog Millionaire and Berberian Sound Studio. The film has a wonderful period look that's both stylised and realistic, and draws on 19th-century French paintings, most especially David, Géricault, Delacroix, Manet and Gustave Doré.

Above all else, perhaps, the film is about three things. First, love both sacred and profane, and its ability to transform and transcend. Second, our need to fight for change and social justice in a cruel world that resists revolution or too easily undermines and diverts it. Third, and above all, Les Misérables is about holding on to hope in the most desperate conditions, and it ends in the victory of love in a context of political defeat.


Philip French

The GuardianTramp

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