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Let’s get the clichés out of the way first. Surprising, breath-taking, a show-stopper – and that’s just Anne Hathaway. Three words in serious danger of serious overuse, and there are many, many more to come as the press descend upon one of the year’s most anticipated films. Yet all ring seriously true. Les Misérables is a magnificent achievement that will, undoubtedly, drown in Oscar glory this awards season.

As a spokesman from Universal Pictures announced at the world’s first screening in Sydney (one where goons in night-vision glasses patrolled the audience for inappropriate use of a mobile as anxious viewers worried their phone wasn’t as off as they thought it was), Les Misérables is a film 27 years in the making. Adapted from Victor Hugo’s groundbreaking novel, the stage musical was an unprecedented success. Any filmed version had a lot to live up to and only recently did “the stars align”. The stars in question: Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, Anne Hathaway, Amanda Seyfried, Helena Bonham Carter, Sacha Baron Cohen, director Tom Hooper (The King’s Speech) and screenwriter William Nicholson (Gladiator). Together they've already chalked up two wins from eight Oscar nominations.

Yet pedigree alone doesn’t a classic musical make (Mamma Mia! anyone?). This is a culmination of creative vision which combines the essence of a truly great musical and a formidable novel. Rather than give it a light tickle and throw it onscreen for the eager consumer, this has been given a life of its own. Consider that any discernible change to the production's lifeblood, its music, would render the film still born. Wrestling a new vision from the source is a considerable achievement.

For anyone who’s been living under a rock for the past three decades, Les Misérables is the sometimes uplifting, occasionally provocative and frequently harrowing story of redemption. Jean Valjean (Jackman) is a former convict who breaks parole on finding God. He reinvents himself as an upstanding citizen but is unable to shake the dogged Javert (Crowe) who has made it his life’s mission to force justice on Valjean. But for the huddled, starving masses of the French revolution, and by extension Javert, justice is a very fluid concept. Conflict is heightened when Valjean takes in Cosette (Seyfried), the orphaned daughter of a dying employee (Hathaway’s gut wrenching Fantine); further still when, years later, he entrusts her into the care of a young, love-struck revolutionary (My Week With Marilyn’s Eddie Redmayne) as religion, politics and law collides. Comic relief is provided by Bonham Carter and Baron Coehn as the light fingered Thénardiers, but real drama plays out against the barricades of the June revolution, and in the shadow of Javert’s unrelenting presence.

Foremost, Les Misérables is old school operatic musical with a couple of the best songs in the canon. Yet rather than stick pictures on a soundtrack in the time honoured fashion, Hooper recorded live and the results speak (or sing) for themselves. Freed from the shackles of lip-synching, actors realise the emotion of the moment with some scorching honesty. While Crowe returns a solid performance, neither remarkable nor particularly awkward, Jackman wrangles some pulsating moments from Valjean's tortured soul. However they're both, perhaps fittingly, sideswiped by youth - Redmayne’s bravura performance is surprising and exciting, Seyfried commands the camera yet all pale against Hathaway who shed 25 pounds to look as ‘near death’ as possible, achieving a performance that redefines unimaginable distress. Her one-take, single shot, skin-crawlingly, utterly magnificent rendition of I Dreamed A Dream brings down la maison. See above re show-stopper.

Hooper scores again in wrestling Les Misérables off the stage and into the fetid streets of Paris. The production is a work of art that recalls the stage show’s grand design while making it bigger, bolder, dirtier. You can almost taste the putrescence. Throughout there’s a sense of hyper-reality signalled by the opening scene in which convicts are hauling an enormous sailing ship into dry dock. This is a bold start that establishes Hooper’s intention, one that contracts and expands as the story demands without falling back under a proscenium arch. Rife with emotion, it’s a story that tackles humanity’s darkest moments under Hooper’s astute direction. Even youngsters, who often sound a death knell in cinema let alone musicals, bring something to the table. The urgent bravado of Daniel Huttlestone's young Gavroche has a winning sadness about it.

There’s no escaping that Les Misérables is not for the casual cinema goer. There’s no break from the music and at 157 minutes, it requires much emotional fortitude and an even stronger backside. ‘Bring back the interlude,” whispered a companion toward the end. Nor is there much by way of relief from the story’s gruelling events. Yet there’s also no escaping that a demanding musical has become a rewarding film spectacle. Talk of Oscar is not tossed about casually for here is a film that really does have it all: heart, soul, blood, sweat and tears.


Previewed at Events Cinemas, George Street, Sydney on Saturday 24 November 2012
moviereview colin fraser film movie australia review critic flicks

Les Misérables (2012) on IMDb

Hugh Jackman
Russell Crowe
Anne Hathaway
Amanda Seyfried

Tom Hooper

William Nicholson


M / 157 minutes

December 26, 2012
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