When Universal Pictures unveiled its stars for the film version of the musical Les Misérables—Hugh Jackman, Anne Hathaway, Russell Crowe, Amanda Seyfried—some Broadway fans groaned. The musical has less than a smattering of spoken dialogue, and its songs take singers through multiple octaves, so fans understandably thought vocal experience should be the casting priority. The vocal chords seemed even more important because the film’s director Tom Hooper planned to do the unprecedented, filming all the singing live instead of in a studio beforehand. But Hooper (of HBO’s miniseries John Adams and the Academy Award magnet The King’s Speech) ignored Broadway talent and picked movie actors.
The fans were wrong and the results of Hooper’s gambles are stunning. The movie, which follows the famous story of former prisoner Jean Valjean’s search for redemption, provides exactly what the stage production can’t provide: the intimacy of long, close gazes into the characters’ faces. Hooper knew it would require actors who could remain natural and convincing when a camera hung inches away—a “minimalism,” he called it. In Jean Valjean’s solo, “Who am I?” the camera hovers before Valjean (Hugh Jackman—who does have a voice to brag about) through an entire song, with no cuts. You see Valjean’s torment, you see his repentance, you see his relief at finding grace. Jackman described how in the nine weeks of rehearsals before actual shooting began, Hooper would pull up a chair so close he was almost in Jackman’s lap, make his hands into a frame right in Jackman’s face, and ask him to sing to him.
“Having the camera basically do a meditation on the human face was the best way to bring out the emotion of the songs,” said Hooper, who focused on faces because Les Misérables is an “epic of the human heart. … I felt the great weapon in my arsenal was the close-up.” The live singing gives that weapon an even sharper edge, as the actors could stop, start, let out a sob. Hooper makes it more realistic by avoiding anything that looks like choreography. This is a dramatic film, not a Broadway show on film.
Samantha Barks, who plays Eponine, is the one actor who sings like she is on American Idol. I looked her up afterward: She played Eponine on stage and had never been in a film before. Her vocal performance, while technically superior to film star Anne Hathaway’s, had none of the realism. At the screening I attended in New York, spontaneous, sustained applause broke out after Hathaway’s rendition of “I Dreamed a Dream.” Silence greeted the end of Eponine’s massive ballad, “On My Own.” Hathaway portrays a woman who is absolutely broken, and as she described it, under sexual slavery. Hathaway said she watched documentaries on contemporary sexual slavery to prepare for the role. “This injustice lives in this world,” Hathaway said. “This isn’t acting, this is honoring the pain that exists in this world.”
Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter as the Thenardier couple do their part to add to the world’s problems—but they are thoroughly entertaining as the story’s villains. Families be warned that the Thenardiers’ dishonorable house features one dishonorable moment between a prostitute and a customer. The film also depicts Fantine’s first encounter as a prostitute, though not graphically.
The musical’s original composers wrote a few new songs for the film, and they enrich the story. In one, Valjean reflects on becoming a father to Cosette, a transformational relationship that receives short shrift in the play. In another, Inspector Javert (Crowe) attempts to resign after he believes he has falsely accused Valjean, underscoring Javert’s unbending fealty to the law in regards to himself as much as anyone else.
It’s comforting that Les Misérables is a fixed canon. No rendition of the musical can avoid the explicit songs about salvation and the power of grace (embodied in Valjean) over the power of the law (embodied in Javert). Hooper doesn’t run from those themes. The cross is a visual trope throughout, and a painting of an eye overlooks Valjean as he sings to “God above.” “Religious imagery … was something Tom was very conscientious about,” said Eddie Redmayne, who plays Marius. Jackman, to a degree, seemed to grasp the centrality of his character’s redemption to the story. He was a student of Victor Hugo’s explicitly Christian book, carrying it around with him on the set. “Victor Hugo uses the word ‘transfiguration,’” said Jackman. “Jean Valjean becomes more God-like. It’s a spiritual change.”