Hugh Jackman and Anne Hathaway, who both won Golden Globes, in a scene from “Les Misérables”
MANILA, Philippines – Two rounds of applause for a musical? That’s practically unheard of for any movie but that’s exactly what happened during the Manila premiere of “Les Misérables,” the new movie by Oscar winner Tom Hooper.
Adapted from Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg's stage musicale based on Victor Hugo's massive 1862 novel, “Les Miz” is all cinematic fire and visual pomp, a movie epic of story and song.
There was loud applause after the movie finally finished and people started filing out, only to be followed by a second wave of applause from people who stayed behind to watch the credits and linger even more in the experience.
Hugh Jackman plays Jean Valjean, a former convict who is imprisoned for 19 years for stealing a loaf of bread and finds redemption after another act of theft is repaid with kindness.
He breaks parole shortly after his release, ever watchful for his former prison guard Javert (Russell Crowe), even as he births a new identity and transforms himself as a mayor. Valjean is forced to flee after he reveals his true identity at a local court. He also adopts a young girl, Cosette, after helping her mother, Fantine (Anne Hathaway), who had died after getting fired from a factory that he had owned.
The story’s second act sees Valjean and the now grown-up Cosette still hiding from Javert. A student revolutionary Marius (Eddie Redmayne) falls for Cosette, to the detriment of Eponine (Samantha Barks) who is in love with Marius. And all this drama is happening as revolution comes to a boil in the streets of Paris.
Songs filmed live
Here’s the first thing I thought of after the movie: the entire cast should be tried for the first degree because they practically murdered the audience. The decision to film the songs live, with the actors singing to a piano accompaniment, gives the movie authenticity. Every dropped note, spoken word, vocal break is there; every soaring note thrills like no pre-recorded track can.
Director Tom Hooper deserves praise for shooting some of the musical’s best solos ("I Dreamed a Dream," "On My Own," "Bring Him Home," "Empty Chairs and Empty Tables") in one continuous, unforgiving take without cuts -- it’s like watching a theater performance up close, flaws and all.
Jackman and Hathaway turn in the kind of spine-tingling performances that could draw tears from stone.
Jackman, in particular, is going to turn a lot of heads from here on out: his performance as the repentant sinner longing to escape his past is the beating soul of this movie. Jackman’s voice rakes and rivens here, changing from urgent longing in “What Have I Done?” to commanding power in “One Day More” and soothing lullaby in “Bring Him Home.” When he barely whispers his song in “Valjean’s Confession,” your awe is complete.
Acting-wise, Jackman shows greatness as he transforms from emaciated hobo to mayor to father of Cosette to forgiven pilgrim. One particular scene stands out: when Valjean’s prodigious strength finally, inevitably fails him.
Jackman’s performance is only matched here by Hathaway. Hathaway, all slinky and steel as Catwoman in last year’s "The Dark Knight Rises," looks emaciated here as the consumption-riddled Fantine. Hathaway may not have the pipes of a Susan Boyle or a Patti Lupone but she more than makes up for it with emotional fire.
Shorn like a sheep and forced into prostitution, Hathaway sings “I Dreamed A Dream” with both rage and despair and her performance is heady and potent. When she sings that line “Come with me, where chains will never bind you” in “Valjean’s Death,” it sounds like a blessing.
Samantha Barks as Eponine
One performer that I feel will be the breakout star in this movie is Samantha Barks as Eponine, the only holdover from the Les Misérables 25th Anniversary Concert: she played the same role in the musicale’s London production in 2010.
Beating out hopefuls such as Lea Michele and Taylor Swift for the role, Barks gets to do that other show-stopper of a song “On My Own” on a rain-spattered street. Barks exudes a calm confidence in her role, even if it is her first time to do a movie. I expect more movie roles for her in the years to come.
The other performers are equally deserving of praise: Aaron Tveit brings youthful haughtiness to Enjolras, while Amanda Seyfried (Cosette)'s lovely soprano is enthralling when she sings "A Heart Full of Love."
Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter as the Thénardiers, are old hands in this genre after singing through the operatic Sweeney Todd. Here, they find humor in unexpected ways in their songs "Master of the House" and "The Bargain."
Eddie Redmayne as Marius deserves special mention for his stirring, heartfelt "Empty Chairs at Empty Tables."
According to producer Cameron Mackintosh, the version used in the movie is actually the 21st take of the same song. Redmayne also said in an Empire Magazine interview that he decided to tape the song over and over again so he could use the emotion built up in his last performance to fuel the next one.
Russell Crowe as Javert
Finally, there’s Russell Crowe, who gets the antagonist role of Javert.
Crowe’s gruff baritone sounds fine in his solo “Stars” but he sounds weak every time he has to sing with someone else. Crowe’s voice lacks the fullness and nuance compared to his fellow leads, and he seems ill at ease in his role.
Perhaps the biggest letdown is Crowe’s final solo, “Javert’s Suicide.” It lacks the emotional heft of a man whose emotional axis has been upended by Valjean’s act of mercy.
A final note on the cinematography: some reviewers have chastised Hooper for his restless camera and odd angles. True, there are a few scenes where the camera placement felt skewed but these are too minimal to mar the movie.
One caveat though – the movie sometimes feels too slavish to the musical, rushing to the next song immediately instead of letting a scene, and the audience, breathe before moving on. And there were times when I wanted the camera to pan out to see Hooper’s set design and cast, to bring a sense of spectacle instead of another close-up.
These, however, are mere quibbles. “Les Misérables” deserves every bit of praise and accolade heaped on it. More than the sum of its parts, it is more than just a movie but an experience.