THERE are moments in Les Misérables when the pathos is stretched so tight that the flicker of a facial expression
THERE are moments in Les Misérables when the pathos is stretched so tight that the flicker of a facial expression or a note warbled out of tune could make the whole thing come tumbling down into parody.
Thankfully, that doesn’t happen — partly because the singing is good, the acting superb — and partly because as an audience we want so badly to believe in this story.
Les Misérables is based on the book by Victor Hugo. Set in early 1800s Paris it depicts an era of political turmoil and a depth of poverty that no living soul in Western Europe will ever have experienced.
The hardship of just surviving, and life-threatening situations where one’s integrity is called into question, are themes that saturate this narrative.
It’s a story of the endurance of the human spirit, and the all-pervading power of love. They just don’t write them like that any more.
The action is set in Paris but much of it was filmed in recognisable parts of Britain, such as the Naval College in Greenwich. In translating the world’s most successful musical to the big screen, director Tom Hooper has made the story more realistic and more awe-inspiring by showing us vast landscapes and scenes of human toil and suffering on a Biblical scale, something that just can’t be recreated on a West End stage.
The story opens with protagonist Valjean (Hugh Jackman) hauling a ship into a dry dock along with thousands of other convicts in a chain gang. The magnitude of it is quite breath-taking — there must be computer wizardry at work, but it is an entirely believable trompe l’oeil.
After Valjean is released by black-hearted police chief, Javert (Russell Crowe), we skip to the sweeping vistas of a snow-dusted mountain top that looks like it must have been shot in the Alps. No other medium could depict, in such simple visual terms, the ambivalent feelings of exhilaration and fear that a man must experience on being granted freedom after 19 years in jail.
And so it goes on. The poverty depicted in this film is gruesome and graphic and pretty relentless. But that’s what real human poverty is like.
One of the production team’s greatest challenges was to make the actors sing live on set. Neither Jackman nor Crowe have brilliant voices, but they can sing in tune and their performances are convincing.
Anne Hathaway, by contrast, is spellbinding throughout. The Hollywood glamour girl of The Devil Wears Prada has come of age. She lost nearly 26 pounds from her already slender frame in preparation for the part, and has all her hair cut off on screen, proving her credentials as a serious character actress. Her rendition of I Dreamed A Dream is heartbreaking. Anyone who watches that scene without shedding a tear has a stone instead of a heart.
This film is a tour de force and deserves to do well in the Oscars. The fact that it is made in Britain makes your heart swell with pride. If you don’t see any other film this season, go and see this one.