Through a water filled lens the camera focuses on an immense torn French flag then above water level to a huge shipyard with rows of men on a chain gang breaking into the opening number Look Down.
The men are prisoners sentenced to hard labour in early nineteenth century France. Among the prisoners is Jean Valjean nearing the end of a 19 year sentence for stealing a mouthful of bread. Prison guard Javert points out that the sentence length was due to attempted attempts to escape. Valjean is paroled and thus begins a 17 year cat and mouse pursuit between the two men.
Tom Hooper's follow up to his Oscar Winning directing turn for The Kings Speech is epic in scale and powerful in voice. Hooper took a different approach from most musicals that come to the screen instead of having the actors record the songs ahead of time and lip sync on screen Hooper instead had the actors sing live during the filming giving the film a crisp, fresh impact full feel.
The director also used the limitless canvas of the screen to visualize many parts of the play that just cannot be done on the stage. a great example of which is the fast and quick downward spiral of Fantine (Anne Hathaway) We first see hear as a young innocent worker in Monsieur Le Mer's ( Valjean alias) factory then within a few frames she is sacked, cast out , amongst the fallen women, her head shaved and teeth missing all to raise money to pay the innkeepers who are taking care of her daughter Cosette.
Le Mer /Valjean intercedes to right his wrong a bit to late for Fantine but in time to rescue her daughter Cosette from mistreatment and menial chores at the Thenardiers Inn. Javert now a police inspector and aware of Valjean new identity is in pursuit and just misses the pair at the Inn giving them the opportunity to disappear again.
The piece jumps ahead to 1932 centred around the June Student rebellion. The Act opens with a reprise of the Look Down number but in this instance it's a call from the poor and wretched in the Paris streets demanding the rich to see the plight of the average poor citizen. Hooper in this sequences brings the audience into the underbelly of Paris the viewer can almost experience the filth and disease that is rampant in the city streets which is apparently unnoticed by the rich as they pass by in their horse drawn carriages.
Cosette now a young woman catches the eye of Marius a leader of the student rebellion. Eponine (estranged daughter of the Thenardiers) realizes that Marius sees Cosette as she wishes he would see her and decides to help bring them together as does Jean Valjean.
Javert goes to the students blockage under the guise of informant but is discovered by street urchin Garvroche and taken into custody by the students. Jean Valjean arrives at the barricade to protect Marius and is given the task of dealing with the prisoner. Valjean and Javert are face to face again but this time with the upper hand Valjean lets Javert escape which destroys Javerts belief system leading him to a drastic act.
The film boasts some wonderful performances that will lead to many nominations during awards season. Anne Hathaway is excellent as the doomed Fontaine. Hugh Jackman is outstanding as Jean Valjean the central character and glue that holds the whole project together.
The film features excellent sound. The ensemble numbers leap off the screen filling the theatre with their enormity. The slower more intimate pieces such as Fontaine's I Dream a Dream and Eponine's On My Own wonderfully done by Samantha Barks reprising her role from the stage rang true and clear. Russell Crowe was passable as the stoic Javert as he delivered his two main numbers both helped by a visual of a harrowing ledgewalk.
I expect the audience to fall into three categories for this film. Theatre veterans who have seen the stage play countless times and have ranking favourites in each role, those that have seen the stage play possibly some time ago and know the story and the songs and those who the film will be the first experience. Those that fall into the first category may have the most difficulty with the film having already established favourites in their minds eye for each character. I count myself in the second category and found the film excellent, original, riveting and one that I would definitely recommend.
**** out of 4
Les Miserables | Tom Hooper | U.K. | 2012 | 157 min.