Have you heard the people sing?

Hugh Jackman as Jean Valjean

Les Miserables (PG)
Review by Megan Graham

Set in post-revolutionary France, Les Miserables tells the story of several individuals whose lives intertwine, leading up to the June Rebellion of 1832 (AKA the Paris Uprising).

The main character, Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman), is on the run from the law after breaking his parole at the end of a 19-year prison sentence for stealing a loaf of bread. Javert (Russell Crowe), the unsympathetic police inspector, relentlessly pursues Valjean, determined to bring justice upon him.

This film did not disappoint – and in fact, managed to exceed my expectations – which is quite a feat considering the hysteria Hollywood so willingly generated about it.

If you’re familiar with the book or musical, you’ll know that Les Miserables is about grace. In the case of this film, the word is not just a description of the major theme but also the style and elegance of its delivery.

The title (which translates as the Miserable Ones in English) is apt. The audience experiences an emotional roller-coaster, feeling simultaneously heartbroken and uplifted.

The pain of the miserable ones’ struggles is poignantly expressed in wrenching performances – I’ve never before been so touched by the story, which I have been familiar with for most of my life.

But be warned, the swells of the orchestra and the desperately delivered lyrics of woe and longing combine to be emotionally overwhelming at times. I caught glimpses of many tear-stained faces, mirroring my own, as the credits rolled.

Along with the necessity of grace in all human relationships, another resonating theme of Les Miserables is the sheer fragility of human life. It inevitably encourages a strong sense of compassion towards the whole human race as we come to realise we each have a story of struggle.  The questions raised are not just about personal sacrifice for greater societal change, class warfare or the ethics of law enforcement; the story is just as much about unrequited love, friendship and personal identity (captured in Valjean’s number, ‘Who Am I’).

Intimate camera close-ups draw the audience into the thick of these very personal motifs.

The most impressive aspect of the film was the performance of Anne Hathaway. Her portrayal of Fantine could not have been more touching, raw or intense – and her voice held up spectacularly.

Another standout feature is the well-publicised fact that all of the songs were recorded live during filming. As with live theatre, it is a pleasure and a thrill to see people combine brilliant singing with equally brilliant acting. Even more, a permanent recording typically requires a greater standard than a live performance allows for. Doubtless, it took an inestimable amount of work from the cast to achieve such an awe-inspiring performance on every level.

The only downsides were the inclusion of a few new songs that fail to match the quality of the original repertoire, and the unfortunate casting of Russell Crowe, who is shown to be way out of his league musically, as Javert – a character with some of the most prominent numbers of the musical.

Nevertheless, Les Miserables is one of the best musical films I’ve ever seen.

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