Les Misérables is one of the best loved and most enduring musicals ever made. The French original premiered in Paris in 1980 and the English version arrived on Broadway a few years later. Based on Victor Hugo’s eponymous novel, the musical centres around the character Jean Valjean, a French peasant who spends two decades in jail for stealing a loaf of bread and decides to start a new life by breaking his parole, all the while being pursued by police inspector Javert. Set in the early years of post-revolution France, the story exposes the social injustice and class struggles of the time and explores such universal themes as law, mercy and redemption.
I grew up knowing every word of every song in Les Mis. Tunes like Do You Hear the People Sing? and On My Own were the anthems of my adolescence. I have seen the productions in New York, London, Toronto, Paris and Madrid, performed in English, French and Spanish. I know the musical so well that when I first heard the news about a film adaptation in 2009, I was filled with excitement and apprehension in equal measure. Taking such a celebrated musical to the silver screen is no small feat. On the arduous road from stage to screen, the movie can either go the way of multi-Oscar winners like The Sound of Music, West Side Story and Chicago, or land with a thud as did The Phantom of the Opera and Rent.
English director Tom Hooper, who won an Oscar last year for The King’s Speech, understands the challenges facing him. Characters breaking into song may work in a Disney cartoon, but it can backfire and leap into the absurd in a serious drama. To soften the edge of a sung-through movie, Hooper adopts a rather revolutionary recording method. Instead of pre-recording the songs and having the actors lip-sync them on set, the vocals are recorded live and guided by a piano accompaniment played through earpieces. It is only until post-production that that the full orchestra is added to the soundtrack and that the earpieces are digitally removed from the frame. The live recording approach allows the actors to sing at their own pace and to act out the scenes with greater freedom. The result is a much better integration between singing and acting.
But Hooper couldn’t have done it without the star-studded cast. Hugh Jackman sheds his Wolverine image and plays Jean Valjean, a vocally and emotionally demanding role. Although his singing is at times uneven – the number Bring Him Home, for instance, lacks the requisite delicacy – he acts with conviction and consistency. Throughout the 160 minutes of the movie, Jackman sustains the dramatic tension and channels Jean Valjean in his many forms: ex-convict, self-made millionaire, protective father, redemptive hero. Likewise, Anne Hathaway steps out of her fashion industry Cinderalla and Cat Woman personas into the tragic heroine role of Fantine. From the much talked-about I Dreamed a Dream solo to the arrest and death scenes, the actress gives it her all. Despite Hathaway's relatively brief appearance (Fantine dies within the first half-hour of the movie), her heartfelt portrayal of a downtrodden labourer-turned-prostitute has earned her numerous nominations and generated considerable Oscar buzz.
Other well-cast actors include Sasha Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter, who play the Thénardiers and provide welcome comic relief. Eddie Redmayne, Amanda Seyfried and Samantha Barks play Marius, Cosette and Éponine, respectively. They each hold their own and sing with confidence and skill. But the same can't be said about Russell Crowe, who is cast – make that miscast – as the over-zealous police inspector Javert. Crowe looks stiff and uncomfortable on the set and can’t hold a tune to save his life. His solo Stars is so bad that I found myself cringing in embarrassment in the theatre. The role should have gone to someone like Colin Firth or Gary Oldman.
With the exception of Crowe, Les Misérables hits all the right notes. It will go down in movie history as one of the most successful musical-to-movie adaptations. It also sets a high bar for future projects to come: Cats? Miss Saigon? Wicked? Though so much has been said about the ensemble cast and the recording techniques, the movie still owes much of its success to Victor Hugo. His timeless story reminds us that freedom and equality come not from the generosity of the state but the hands of the people who die fighting for them. We saw the French Revolution unfold on the streets of Egypt, Syria and Libya last year. We hear the battle cry for social justice and wealth redistribution get louder by the day in Hong Kong and Mainland China. Its universality is why Les Mis never gets old.