IT is one of the world’s longest-running musicals, seen by more than 60 million people in 42 countries and in 21 languages around the globe, and it is still breaking box-office records in its 28th year. Now the theatrical phenomenon Les Miserables is hitting the big screen. Set in 19th-century France, Les Mis, as it is now universally known, has all the ingredients of a gripping drama — broken dreams, unrequited love, sacrifice and redemption — plus superbly-crafted songs that stir the soul. It is perhaps a surprise, that in an industry which regurgitates books, plays and foreign films in the blink of an eye, it has taken 28 years to reach the screen.
The musical, based on the book by Victor Hugo, tells the story of Jean Valjean, an ex-convict who is pursued for decades by his nemesis, the ruthless policeman Javert. When Valjean agrees to care for the desperate Fantine’s young daughter, their lives are changed forever.
Tom Hooper, director of the Oscar-winning The King’s Speech, faced many challenges in bringing the much-loved musical to the screen. Not least of which was how to transpose the haunting ballads and rousing anthems of live theatre to the more static and less immediate medium of film. He did this by departing from the usual method of actors miming over a pre-recorded track, instead having them sing live as they were filmed, giving the performances a raw, more authentic quality.
When it came to casting, there was no shortage of Hollywood stars lining up to take part. An ability to sing doesn’t appear to have been a prerequisite in all cases, given Russell Crowe’s participation. However, word is that his intense performance and screen presence make up for his vocal shortcomings. Crowe was less than happy, however, with the lukewarm review Les Mis was given by British newspaper The Guardian, taking to Twitter to voice his disapproval: “@guardian Should be ashamed for sending an illiterate plonker to review Les Mis, are you sure your reviewer watched the movie?”
Anne Hathaway, who plays the ill-fated factory worker Fantine, has previous in the musical domain — she performed a song and dance number with Jackman at the Oscars in 2009.
Hathaway’s angry, raw, weeping rendition of ‘I Dreamed a Dream’ is front and centre of the film’s trailer, a definite overture for an Oscar nomination. While perhaps lacking in West End gloss and sophistication, the actress mercifully prises the heart-wrenching ballad from the treacly grip of reality show phenomenon Susan Boyle.
Hugh Jackman, who plays the lead role of Valjean, is probably best known for playing comic book action hero Wolverine in the X-men franchise and many may be surprised to hear that he served his acting apprenticeship in musical theatre. Following appearances in several musicals in Australia, he starred as Curly in Trevor Nunn’s 1998 award winning revival of Oklahoma in London. His acclaimed one-man show was one of the highest grossing musicals of 2011 on Broadway. Jackman has large shoes to fill in the shape of Irish tenor Colm CT Wilkinson, who originated the role in the West End and on Broadway and is still seen by many as the quintessential Valjean. Wilkinson makes a cameo appearance in the film and plays opposite Jackman in one scene. The Australian star said: “It felt odd because Colm was one of the most famous people to ever play the role. I did ask him a couple of questions but I remember him saying at one point, ‘It doesn’t matter in the end. What matters is you do it your way.’”
Jackman brings the required blend of passion and nobility to the role and he’s certainly no slouch vocally. However, some critics have pointed out that he struggles with the two-octave range of ‘Bring Him Home’, which Wilkinson made one of the show’s highlights, hitting the song’s famous, and daunting, top-note night after night.
British actor Eddie Redmayne, who plays romantic lead Marius, also felt the shadow of a previous performance hanging over him, admitting that it was hard to live up to the standard set by Michael Ball, who made the role his own in the original West End production. Redmayne, who sent his first audition to Hooper by iPhone, underwent a further rigorous screening process in front of a panel including the original composers Alain Boubil and Claude-Michel Schonberg. The actor sealed the deal in an unusual manner. “Claude-Michel made me sing that bit in One Day More, where I have to come in and grab a flag and sing quite a high note; a rousing note…. I thought ‘Oh, God.’ I grabbed my balls and gave it as good a belt as I could.”
Samantha Barks shows there is life after talent show disappointment — the runner-up from the BBC’s I’d Do Anything turns in a show-stopping performance after beating Scarlett Johansson, Taylor Swift and Glee star Lea Michele to the part.
Those who haven’t already seen the musical shouldn’t expect a sing along fun night out a la Mamma Mia! The subject matter and setting are grim but some light relief is provided by Borat star Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter as the innkeeper Thenardier and his wife. They perform ‘Master of the House’, a jaunty and bawdy counterpoint to the rest of the heartfelt numbers.
Following a number of Screen Actors Guild and Golden Globe nominations, the odds are strong that Les Mis will become the first musical to compete in the best-picture category since Chicago took the gong a decade ago. And if you want more of Les Mis after the musical and the film of the musical, don’t forget the source material – although it will take a lot longer than a couple of hours to finish the 1862 Victor Hugo novel, which clocks in at more than 1,000 pages. The book was as successful in the 19th century as the musical was in the 20th, Hugo’s magnum opus being greeted ecstatically by an expectant French public. The movie is sure to have the same effect on fans of Les Mis, going on the reception so far.
* Les Miserables is in cinemas on January 11