Now playing at the Ridge and Scotiabank
Opinion about the new big-screen Les Miserables adaptation is likely to be divided into two camps: those fans and repeat attendees of the stage productions who will find the whole concept blasphemous, and those who respect the innovation employed to renew a beloved tale. Get ready to pick sides.
Victor Hugo's story about Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman), the man sent to prison for 19 years for stealing a loaf of bread, is brought to life like never before under the direction of Tom Hooper (The King's Speech). The actors all sing live during their scenes: no dubbing afterward in the safety of the studio.
Which is why they should hand the Best Actress statuette to Anne Hathaway right now, based on her turn as Fantine. Hathaway is shockingly shorn after being kicked out of Valjean's factory, and suffers her first sex transaction in the bowels of a wrecked ship (parents, keep this scene in mind when considering bringing children to see the film). But the film's early "I Had A Dream" scene, shows the best of Hooper's technique: we see the tears and torment close up, something the audience just doesn't experience in the theatre, especially those of us who can't afford front-row seats.
For those few who don't know the story, Fantine's daughter (played by Isabelle Allen as a child, and Amanda Seyfried as an adult) is first sent to live with the Thenardiers (Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter), innkeepers who take Fantine's money but work little Cosette like Cinderella. Her fortunes improve considerably when Jean Valjean honours Fantine's death-bed plea to take care of the girl, but they are always on the run from Police Inspector Javert (Russell Crowe), who can't forget the prisoner who broke parole.
Ah yes, Russell Crowe. The Gladiator star is no stranger to the mic, having been the front-man for several Australian rock bands. But the role of Javert is clearly beyond his range as a singer, and his "Stars" will have shower-stall Javerts running for the exits. But somehow we root for him anyway, surrounded as he is with people better equipped to belt out the big notes.
Romance enters the frame as the revolutionary Marius (Eddie Redmayne of My Week With Marilyn) gets a glimpse of Cosette. The long-suffering Eponine (Samantha Barks) can only look on as the romance blooms, torture made worse when she recognizes Cosette as the girl her parents abused years previous. Barks' shining moment comes in the pouring rain, pouring out her soul in another great Les Mis tear-jerker, "On My Own."
There's a new song, too: "Suddenly" bridges the gap between Valjean the parolee and Valjean the new father. Jackman is a theatre veteran, but often seems to be singing at the top of his range; ditto Seyfried, who starred in Mama Mia alongside Meryl Streep. That film was full of non-singers (hello, Pierce Brosnan!) but didn't receive the same criticism as Les Miserables' stars surely will.
Sets are fantastic, though we don't have time to linger long. Theatre-goers are used to sitting and staring at the same stage craft for long periods of time; some of the scene changes feel a little abrupt, as does some of the camerawork, in that haste to capture actors' emotions as they scuttle through sewers and clamber up barricades.
But none of this fully dilutes the power of the picture, which conveys the age-old themes of forgiveness, justice, love and doubt. And no one can argue with the film's ultimate holiday message that "to love another person is to see the face of God."