Tom Hooper, Oscar-winning director of The King’s Speech, dreamed a dream of immortalising Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boublil’s powerhouse musical without the conventional safety net of lip-synching.
That audacious gamble – asking the actors to sing live in every take – pays off handsomely, teasing out the heartbreaking emotion in an adaptation of a stage show that has become a global phenomenon. The London production of Les Misérables, which opened in 1985 to lukewarm reviews, is the longest-running musical in West End history.
Hooper’s terrific film embraces the Schönberg and Boublil songbook with bold directorial flourishes and tour-de-force performances, including a cri de coeur from Anne Hathaway that virtually guarantees her the Oscar next month.
Hugh Jackman also richly deserves a nomination for his fearless portrayal of a convict, which required the Australian actor to shed 30 pounds to convincingly portray his emaciated hero. The film begins with a thrilling overture in a dockyard where Valjean (Jackman) and his fellow prisoners haul a ship out of the frothing water under the watchful eye of Inspector Javert (Russell Crowe).
Valjean is granted parole and leaves behind his tormentor but cannot secure employment because of his shameful past.
Only the kindness of a bishop saves him from starvation. Eight years later, Valjean has reinvented himself as a revered factory owner in Montreuil-sur-Mer, where one of his workers, Fantine (Hathaway), is cruelly cast out when the foreman learns she has an illegitimate daughter, Cosette (Isabelle Allen).
Determined to raise the money to keep her child under the roof of villainous Thenardier (Sacha Baron Cohen) and his wife (Helena Bonham Carter), Fantine sells her hair and then her body as she sobs I Dreamed a Dream.
Valjean discovers Fantine close to death and agrees to raise Cosette as his own.
So the story moves on a further nine years with revolutionary fervour sloshing through the grimy streets of Paris. Les Misérables is a towering achievement in front of and behind the camera.
With the benefit of live singing, Hooper doesn’t have to photograph set pieces from afar, capturing the political turmoil as actors sing their hearts out in lip-quivering close-up.
The cast is superb – only Crowe is miscast.
His soft, sweet vocals render Javert somewhat impotent next to Jackman’s booming delivery. Bonham Carter and Baron Cohen provide stomach-churning comic relief.