There are few instances when life conspires to give us perfection. To witness such an event, even a century ago would have been a miraculous occurrence worthy of biblical reference. Today we are less inclined toward miracles, so jaded are we by facsimiles thereof.
I promise you, the film of Les Misérables is the real deal at $250 million and worth every frame and every franc. Weighing in at a hefty two hours thirty-seven minutes, this heart-wrenching musical drama speaks to our basic human need to believe that good will triumph over evil; wrongs can be righted; and redemption is possible.
There’s a reason Les Misérables is the longest running musical theater production in the world. It premiered in Paris in 1980, in London in 1985 and in New York two years later. It has been enthusiastically seen by over 6 million (and counting) in multiple countries, in multiple languages. It’s a compelling story of love, hate, hope, redemption, and the bawdiest of humor, taking us all on a satisfying emotional roller-coaster ride. But. While most of the world raves on about the music, the music, the music – a film could never survive on music alone. That would require an unrivaled sense of artistic proportion.
So who would dare attempt such a feat?
Who? Oh, the guy who did The Kings Speech?
Ah. Well. Maybe.
No maybe about it.
Most films are carried by their star power. Only a few are carried by the director’s vision. This is one of them.
Director Hooper has crafted perfection in his cinematic interpretation of the brilliant stage production. Its music is emotionally searing. The fully through-sung approach is unique. Yet all is faithful to the classic Victor Hugo text. Set designer Eve Stewart (her fourth collaboration with Hooper) has produced a Herculean backdrop, inspired by works from French artist & illustrator Gustave Doré and 19th century photographer Charles Manville. She has blended these elements beautifully with the location shoots. She has created a sweeping and grand visual that perfectly balances the other aspects of the film. All has been entrusted to cinematographer Danny Cohen, who has given us a colossal, panoramic, romantic canvas that is beyond our wildest imaginings. Il est magnifique.
Oh, how the language limps in an attempt to describe this enormously satisfying adaptation wherein all the singers perform their music live (a phenomenal achievement) as the camera rolls – no singing in the sound booth with a playback – this is the high-wire without a net. Musical Director Stephen Booker explains the live recording: “The problem when you’re singing to playback is that it denies the actor of being in the moment because they have to stick to the millisecond of a plan laid down months before. Whereas, when they sing live, an actor has the freedom to create the illusion that the character is acting in the moment, which has a profound effect on the power and the realism of the performance. There’s so much emotion in Les Misérables, and I wanted the actors to have options which might be created by the performance—options which they would be unlikely to have in a recording studio months before.”
Thank goodness this didn’t turn into a “film of a musical.”
I’ve been fortunate to see the play three times (London, New York and Boston) and three times I’ve stubbornly endured the four-hour, PBS-produced 25th anniversary television spectacle. Although I noticed different things with each show, I still savored every note, and my tears still flowed on cue. But the film truly completes the story in a way I hadn’t expected.
Hooper et al – a veritable who’s who in production & design – have passionately honored the shows’ origins while brilliantly creating a cinematic homage on a Sistine-Chapel-sized canvas. This faithful yet fresh adaptation, viewed universally or intimately at will, transcends what we think we know and showers us with a fresh sense that something extraordinary is happening.
The film is described as the perfect storm of acting prowess and singing virtuosity by a star powered cast headed by Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, Anne Hathaway, Amanda Sayfried, Eddie Redmayne, Helen Bonham-Carter and Sasha Barren-Cohen.
There is not a weak moment, not a weak voice, not a weak scene – from the overwhelming opening sequence of a chain gang dragging a monstrous ship into dry dock, to Jean Valjean’s last dying moment – so poignant there is not a dry eye in the theater. At the end you may be exhausted, but you will not be untouched by this brave and shining cinematic experience.
Isn’t it fascinating that French composers Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg, along with lyricist Herbert Kretzmer could have created such a masterpiece, rightfully called one of the greatest theatrical scores of all times, and yet, unlike other wildly successful musical collaborators for the theater – Rogers & Hammerstein, Lerner & Lowe, or even Andrew Lloyd Weber – this trio have had no other offerings since they created Les Misérables.
Perhaps it is simply that perfection cannot be topped.