Article/ Les Misérables: A Revolution in Song

Tom Hooper’s take on a hugely successful stage hit adds a sense of urgency to the musical genre.

By Hannah Patterson

An enormous theatrical hit seen by over 60 million people across 42 countries, Les Misérables looks set to be every bit as popular amongst cinemagoers.  An  epic story of obsession, passion, redemption and love, it’s emotionally gripping and unashamedly thrilling. Unlike many musicals, which boast only a handful  of standout songs, here all the tunes excel, the melodies registering each shift in tone – by turns rousing, tender and tear-jerking –  while the lyrics drive the narrative  forward.

Set in 19th-century France, the story hinges on the fortunes of Jean Valjean (a remarkable Hugh Jackman), an ex-prisoner who breaks his parole and is subsequently hunted, over the course of  three decades, by merciless policeman Javert (Russell Crowe). The drama unfolds against a backdrop of social unrest, which saw the dismay of many regarding the failure of the Revolution and the reappearance of the monarchy.

Victor Hugo wrote Les Misérables because he wanted to voice his own political concerns about the need for France’s social progress, prison reform and better treatment of the poor. The film’s depiction of under-class wretchedness has a visceral quality that is rare for a musical. (Even the  comedy relief – entertainingly rendered by Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter, as the innkeepers intent on extorting money from their unwitting clients – is infused with an earthy, vulgar flavour.)

Director Tom Hooper clearly understands that with this kind of full-blooded melodrama, intensity is key. His camera prowls and roams, swooping sensationally up into the sky and down through streets and sewers, zooming in close on the central characters, insistent on mining their every thought and  feeling. His masterstroke lies in his decision to record the performers’ singing live as they act. In most film musicals, the songs would be recorded months before filming begins, with each emotion  therefore replicated through mime.

In Les Misérables, we witness the immediacy of live performance, both in expression and voice. The result is a genuine sense of authenticity, nowhere more so than in Anne Hathaway’s rendition of the famous lament ‘I Dreamed a Dream’.  It is without doubt one of the film’s highlights. Employing Fred Astaire’s theory that you should never cut away from the dance, Hooper shoots in an unbroken take, laying bare each raw emotion, from the realisation of hope diminished to degradation and despair.

After the success of The King’s Speech, Hooper couldn’t have chosen a better project. Not only has he confirmed himself as a safe pair of hands, he’s also proved a daring one, perfectly able to deal  with big, bold themes within a musical setting – a notoriously difficult cinematic genre that studios often balk at. Moreover, he has taken on a story that has, at best, a chequered cinematic heritage. (Of the countless film versions, only the 1935 Charles Laughton vehicle and Claude Lelouch’s 1995 re-working are held in any esteem. As for Bille August’s  doleful  1998 adaptation, Hooper’s version will easily eclipse it.)

The upcoming awards season is one of the strongest in years, with the likes of  Lincoln, Zero Dark Thirty, Argo, The  Master and Life of Pi in the running. However, for its scale, intensity and emotion, Les Misérables  is certain to garner a host of honours alongside a multitude of devoted followers.

With thanks to Curzon Cinemas.

Les Misérables screens from Fri 11 Jan. Buy tickets here