By Alycia Skerry
When the world nearly ended on December 21st, my biggest concern was as follows: “Will I ever get to see ‘Les Mis’?” Fortunately, I woke up the next day, and I now know that it was for the best.
With an Oscar winning movie, it’s difficult to know where to start. The costumes? The set? The performances? The actors?
Even having listed these key components, I have left out what makes “Les Miserables” the best movie of the year in my mind: it’s the music.
Anyone who has followed the entertainment news for the past year will know why “Les Miserables” is such a big deal. Firstly, it’s the only movie adaptation of the Broadway smash hit that opened in 1987 (based on Victor Hugo’s much older novel), closing in 2003 at the longest Broadway run of its time. It now holds the fourth-longest spot under “Chicago,” “Cats” and “Phantom of the Opera.” This 2012 release makes the story and its music available to those who can’t or won’t see it on stage.
The second reason “Les Miserables” is significant lies in an age-old Hollywood production secret. Odds are that if you’ve seen a movie musical, be it “Rent” or “Camp Rock,” the stars on screen aren’t actually singing. It’s their voices, yes, but the songs were recorded months earlier in a studio. Tom Hooper, director of “Les Miserables” (or as we fans call it, “Les Miz”), didn’t want actors to make their acting decisions on the music they heard. He wanted their acting choices to be raw and real, choices the actors could work with. After all, “Les Miz” is a bit of an opera, as it is sung through beginning to end. For this reason, it was decided that the vocals would be performed live, a revolutionary decision (ha, ha).
So why does this particular plot require such attention?
It’s an epic. The plot spans over seventeen years, covering the second, less-successful French Revolution through the eyes of a criminal-turned-saint played by Hugh Jackman.
I will explain the plot as briefly as I can. Please try to follow, but don’t worry if you get frustrated: as amazing as the story is, half of those who have seen it don’t understand it.
Hugh Jackman plays Jean Valjean, a man on the run from the police (Russell Crowe) for breaking his parole (his original crime, which landed him in jail for nineteen years, was stealing a loaf of bread to feed his starving family). Through a turn of events which present him with an opportunity to better his life, he becomes the mayor of a small town.
Flash forward ten years and we meet Anne Hathaway, a dying “lady of the night” who ought to have more screen time. She steals the show with “I Dreamed A Dream,” Les Miz’s anthem. Flash forward another ten years and we meet Amanda Seyfried and her revolutionary boyfriend Eddie Redmayne. Completing their love triangle is Samantha Barks as the ill-fated Eponine, who likes to complain when she’s “on her own.”
As far as acting performances go, Hugh Jackman was perfection. His strong singing voice made the movie. Anyone who knew him as Wolverine and doubted his abilities were quickly proven wrong. He covers the transformation of the character perfectly.
Russell Crowe plays my favorite character, Inspector Javert, who first appears to be a cold and calculating machine. All we want is Valjean’s safety, and with Javert at his heel, many have found the Inspector hard to like. However, Crowe’s interpretation brings a new depth to the way the character is written in the musical. Crowe’s singing voice could be stronger, but his rough sound lends itself to the character.
Anne Hathaway was astonishing as the impoverished Fantine. She actually cut her trademark locks in order to play the part. Her rendition of the musical’s famous song had me sobbing. She won an Oscar for the role.
Eddie Redmayne and Amanda Seyfried make a convincing couple, capturing the innocence and urgency of Marius and Cosette’s love at first sight. While Seyfried’s voice is not the strongest, its birdlike resonance is perfect for the soprano part, and Redmayne’s rich, dark tone makes a perfect Marius.
Samantha Barks fell short of my expectations for Eponine. Barks had played the part on stage before, so she seemed perfect for the role at first, but when the camera approached her face, it revealed empty eyes and an indifferent expression. Her lovely voice did little to make up for her performance, which was unconvincing.
The cinematography was breathtaking, if at times a bit dizzy. Director Tom Hooper won several awards for “The King’s Speech” in 2010. The raw emotion was captured beautifully by the close and personal camera work. The costumes were stunning; the colors were mood-perfect. Hooper managed to both create a fantasy world and recreate a gritty, brutal France all through the lens of Victor Hugo’s classic novel. The movie itself won three Oscars: one for best make-up and hair, one for best sound and another for Anne Hathaway’s performance.
Overall, I recommend it to fans of cinema. If you don’t catch it at the movies, it’s a must-see in your home theater. The story is tragic, but the themes are uplifting. You don’t have to be a fan of musicals to enjoy the magic created by this modern masterpiece.