By now, if you haven’t seen “Les Miserables,” you’ve probably heard the buzz about Anne Hathaway’s hair-raising performance.
In this big-screen, pull-out-the-stops movie of the Broadway musical based on the London production that came from French play fashioned out of the 1862 novel by Victor Hugo (whew!), Hathaway goes all-out in the role of Fantine, the impoverished single mother thrown into the mean, muddy streets of Paris.
Fantine sells her locks, her teeth and her body in order to support her young daughter, and gets to sing the show’s signature song, “I Dreamed A Dream.”
That’s Hathaway’s real hair getting chopped off, and those are real tears that roll down her cheeks when she sings. And her performance of that song is nothing short of stunning, a pained lament of soul-crushing loss that begins as a whisper and ends as a wail and plays out across every inch of her grimy, battered face, which the camera holds in exquisite, excruciating close-up until every soaring note has sailed.
“Les Misérables” is a sweeping, epic tale that intertwines the lives of numerous characters over a span of years between 1815 and 1832, swirling around a central plot of crime and punishment, but blooming with young love and grappling with the grand themes of grace, redemption and revolution.
During the past 30 years, after Hugo’s story was first refashioned for the stage and then became a runaway smash, “Les Miz” has been seen in various productions by hundreds of millions around the world. And now this Hollywood version, released on Christmas Day of 2012, is clearly the movie musical event of the year.
Film musicals are tricky things to pull off, and this one certainly didn’t take the easy road. For one thing, all the cast sang live on camera, instead of miming the words to songs pre-recorded and polished to perfection in a studio. That’s never been done on this scale before, across the span of an entire production like this.
And there’s no real dialogue, like you’d find in most musicals where there’s talking, then a song, then more talking, then another song. Everything in the operatic “Les Misérables” is sung, even the conversations. So it’s not only the movie musical of the year — it’s one of the most “musical” movie musicals to ever hit the big screen.
It certainly helps, obviously, that that everyone in the cast can sing. Hathaway, with her Oscar-baiting performance in the movie’s first act, isn’t the only big star belting it out impressively.
Hugh Jackman anchors the plot as Jean Valjean, the ex-convict who takes in Fantine’s daughter, Cossette, to raise as his own, living in constant hiding from Javert (Russell Crowe), the obsessive inspector who’ll stop at nothing to find him and haul him back to prison for a minor parole violation years ago.
Amanda Seyfried, who plays Cossette as a young adult, absolutely sings like a bird, and Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter provide comic relief as the bawdy innkeepers Msr. and Mme. Thénardier.
The supporting cast also shines, especially British newcomer Samantha Barks, who won the role of Eponine, the resistance fighter with a broken heart, over country pop princess Taylor Swift. Her spotlight moment with the song “A Little Fall of Rain” is a standout.
You can probably infer from the title that “Les Misérables” isn’t exactly a bouquet of sunshine and flowers. It’s a wrenching tale that winds through cold, dark streets and mucky underground sewers. And if you like big death scenes, well, this show’s got not one, not two, not three — let’s just say those moments will keep a lot of viewers busy digging for fresh tissues to sop up the sniffles.
The “misery” is there, all right. But so is the uplift.
And as legions of “Les Miz” lovers can already attest, the goodness and light that comes as the plot builds to its emotional finale, as the notes of the last song soar in a triumphant ode to hope and transformation and the sun rising and flames never dying and people living in freedom and having their reward … well, it turns all that misery into something majestic, moving and quite magnificent.
IF YOU GO
WHAT: “Les Misérables”
STARRING: Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe and Anne Hathaway
DIRECTED BY: Tom Hooper
RUNNING TIME: 157 minutes