Tom Hooper’s superb film of the musical Les Misérables is the best part of two-thirds run when a young urchin suddenly appears on the increasingly rebellious streets of 19th century Paris. Gavroche, as we quickly learn he’s called, is cheeky, brave and, as played by young Daniel Huttlestone, something of a charmer too.
But what we’re all thinking is “It’s the Artful Dodger!” – Gavroche is uncannily like Fagin’s light-fingered sidekick from Oliver! For it was while watching the Artful Dodger in a West End production of Oliver! in the late 1970s that French songwriter Alain Boublil immediately thought of Gavroche in Victor Hugo’s 1862 novel and rushed back to Paris to contact composer Claude-Michel Schonberg.
The idea for a musical version of Les Misérables was born, leading, in due course, to the first stage production in Paris in 1980. This, in turn, resulted in the English-language production, with new lyrics by Herbert Kretzmer, opening at the Barbican in 1985. That production, directed by Trevor Nunn and John Caird, has been running in the West End ever since.
Whisper it quietly (especially in musical theatre circles) but the film version is even better, fully deserving its four Golden Globe nominations, nine Bafta nominations and the considerable pre-Oscar buzz generated since the preview screenings.
Hugh Jackman, who plays the bread-stealing convict Jean Valjean, looks certain to land a Best Actor nomination come Oscar time while Anne Hathaway, who sacrificed both her hair and weight for the part of Fantine, almost has her hands on the Best Supporting Actress statuette already. (Both Jackman and Hathaway have already secured a Golden Globe for their roles.)
But there’s so much more to this wonderful production than a couple of top-class turns , with Hooper providing ample evidence that the Best Director Oscar he won for The King’s Speech was no one-off.
The stage production works (and some devotees go back year after year) because of the magnificent singing and the spectacularly staged set pieces: the film triumphs because Hugo’s melodrama-tinged story has never been better told or made more of an emotional impact. With a running time of almost two hours 40 minutes, there are going to be a lot of numb backsides by the end but, very few dry eyes.
And that’s because of two inspired creative decisions that Hooper made before he shot a single scene. First, he decided to use actors rather than singers and, second, they sang live in every take. This is a musical where both story and music flow seamlessly.
Given that there are probably no more than a dozen lines that are spoken rather than sung, this is probably just as well. But the result is transformative: this tale of disappointment, betrayal and death feels real in a way that so many other musicals do not. So when Hathaway’s fragile, faltering voice breaks with emotion, as she sings the part of poor, doomed Fantine, our hearts break too.
This is the sort of production where minor imperfections – and there are some weak-ish voices among the cast – have been celebrated rather than used as an excuse to shout “cut!” or resort to dubbing suite wizardry.
Jackman is almost unrecognisable for the first 15 minutes, when Valjean, who’s served 19 years for stealing a single loaf of bread, is released from prison. But, slowly, his handsome features emerge and, having broken the terms of his parole, he becomes a successful businessman and Mayor of Montreuil.
It is here that he meets the once-beautiful Fantine, now working as a prostitute, taking responsibility first for her and then for her daughter, Cosette, played initially by Isabelle Allen, and then later, as an adult, by Amanda Seyfried.
But strive as Valjean might to do the right thing, to be redeemed for his past sins, he runs the constant risk of being unmasked by his arch-enemy, Inspector Javert, a policeman who never forgets a face.
Russell Crowe plays Javert, the role that the great Charles Laughton took on in a 1935 screen adaptation of Hugo’s novel, and does so with commendable courage.
He doesn’t have the strongest singing voice but he’s in tune, and, most importantly, oozes the sort of malevolence that this part requires.
Hathaway’s commitment to what is very much a supporting part is even more impressive. As one of the most beautiful actresses in Hollywood, she sacrifices two of her crowning glories – her hair and her face – to the role of Fantine. As the camera lingers on Hathaway, hair shorn and cheeks sunken, she is the epitome of cinematic misery.
With Hooper’s visual-effects team working overtime, the panoramas of 19th century Paris are stunning, while some of the supporting performances are a delight. Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen are fun and seriously good as the Thenardiers, the money-grabbing innkeepers who take in Cosette as a child, for a fee, of course.
This film won’t be for everyone; musical theatre-cum-light opera never is. There may even be die-hard fans of Les Mis who take exception to their favourites being sung a little less tunefully than they are used to. But I’m convinced Hooper’s vital, visceral, mould-breaking production will win new fans. “Do you hear the people sing?” the chorus asks. The answer has to be a resounding, triumphant “yes”.Mail On Sunday