Quick Take: Read why Jason ended up watching the film on Blu-ray three times before writing his review.
Les Miserables is a movie that transcends genre. It’s more than a drama; it’s more than a musical.
It is, quite simply, an experience.
The plot, as anyone acquainted with either the long-running stage musical or the Victor Hugo classic on which it is based can attest, is spread out across a long canvas. In 1816, Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) is paroled after serving a 19-year sentence for stealing a loaf of bread.
Despite warnings from prison guard Javert (Russell Crowe), Valjean breaks his lifelong parole in search of a higher redemption, eventually becoming mayor of a small town in France where he runs a textiles factory.
One of his employees, Fantine (Anne Hathaway) is fired from the factory when it is discovered she is supporting a daughter, Cosette, who was born out of wedlock. Valjean is ignorant of due to the arrival of his town’s new chief of police, Javert. Fantine goes on a downward spiral from that point, resorting to prostitution to support Cosette.
On Fantine’s deathbed, with Javert closing in, Valjean swears to raise Cosette as his own, leading into the film’s third act, set in Revolutionary Paris. Cosette (now an adult, played by Amanda Seyfried) falls in love with Marius, a revolutionary who is likewise smitten.
From there, the movie steamrolls to a raucous conclusion set against a backdrop of battle with the love of Cosette and Marius as well as the souls of both Javert and Valjean hanging in the balance.
As a longtime fan of the stage musical, I’ve always been impressed by how well Les Miserables carries these large, epic themes set against even more epic backgrounds without becoming overwhelming to an audience. Director Tom Hooper (John Adams, The King’s Speech) brings that same sense of cohesion and control to the film while still managing to evoke virtually every emotion imaginable.
We struggle with Valjean as he tries to decide, quite literally, who he is: Criminal or saint? And we cheer for him to succeed, never forgetting that Javert is perfectly just in his single-minded manhunt. We suffer with Fantaine as she runs a veritable gauntlet of human suffering. We feel the pain of Marius and Cosette, to be simultaneously so close to and far away from true love.
Everything just mentioned is equally attributable to the script, written by William Nicholson and Herbert Kretzmer (along with Alain Boubil and Claude-Michel Scchonberg, the writers of the stage show). The screenplay manages to convey the sheer enormity of the story while maintaining a meticulous focus on the smaller threads that make up the whole.
And then there’s the music. I am, by and large, not particularly fond of musical films primarily because of the way many of them are made. In essence, the music is often recorded first, and when the actors step onto the set they then have to match their on-camera performance to their in-studio performance, killing any chance for spontaneity and thus shattering any suspension of disbelief.
Hooper took the approach of having his cast sing live on the set, giving them the opportunity to shape their performances as they went along as well as altering them to fit those of their castmates. It’s bound to have been an arduous task and one that had to have been taken into account when the Academy named Hooper among the nominees for 2012’s Best Director.
The songs themselves are particularly stirring, particularly “One Day More,” a song/set-piece that, in the span of maybe five or six minutes, tells us everything about the characters and the story we need to know on the eve of the epic Battle of the Barricade.
Then there are the performances, for which no amount of hyperbole can accurately describe. Anne Hathaway has garnered much of the attention – and deservedly so – but virtually every performance in this movie is worthy of recognition.
Jackman and Crowe both give the best performances of their careers – particularly Crowe, who I think was snubbed big-time when the Academy rolled out this year’s nominations. His take on Javert is brilliant, as he manages to inject some genuine (if not particularly sympathetic) humanity into arguably the most single-minded character in any culture’s literary canon.
Not to be outdone, though, Jackman provides a strong pillar on which the film is built. His Valjean takes us on his long, harrowed journey with him and helps us get inside of his eternally-conflicted personality.
I’m not one for lists, but if I was asked, right now, to make a list of my 10 favorite films of all time, Les Miserables would be very, very near the top.
Universal brings Les Miserables to Blu-ray with a glorious 1080p MPEG-4 AVC encode that takes full advantage and then some of everything the format has to offer. Colors are rich and vibrant, and the film’s visual trademark (the glow of the external lighting) is transferred beautifully from the silver screen to the flat screen. Of particular note is the film’s opening, with Valjean and his fellow prisoners in a drydock being forced to pull a battered warship into port.
Of course, the sound is of paramount importance in order to fully appreciate this film, and Universal has put together a fantastic DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 soundtrack. There is rarely a moment in this movie without sound – and even more rarely is there a moment without big sounds, and the track handles it with equal parts subtlety and garish enthusiasm. The Battle of the Barricade is a shining example of this, as the sounds of gunfire and cannon explosions are blasting the surround at the same time that the songs are permeating the texture of the scene, and nothing is ever lost on the audience. Truly magnificent.
Beyond the Feature
Anyone who reads my reviews regularly is aware that one of my most consistent gripes is that studios don’t give the truly great films enough in the way of bonus features. I can say with glee that Universal is not guilty of that sin with this film – Les Miserables is chock full of extras.
- Director’s Commentary with Tom Hooper – The director may have something of a dry, monotonous tone, but through that shines a true affinity for the project and a genuine excitement for talking about it. He provides invaluable insight into the challenges of the live-singing approach as well as the story material. Despite being an Academy Award-winner for The King’s Speech already, this commentary leads me to believe that we may not yet have seen his best work.
- Les Miserables: A Revolutionary Approach (1 hour, 3 minutes) – This multi-part documentary takes us through every imaginable facet of making the film. Of particular interest are a bit on location scouting and shooting (an aspect of filmmaking often forgotten by such features) as well as a section called The West End Connection, focused on actors who have played major roles in the stage version who pop up in the film. The documentary can be watched as a single feature or you can watch each individual segment.
- The Original Masterwork: Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables (11 minutes) – This brief featurette provides a fascinating look at the author of the original novel’s life, particularly those portions that feed directly into the tone of Les Miserables.
All bonus features are presented in high definition.
At the end of the day, Les Miserables has become one of my favorite movies. I’ve had this disc in my possession for four days of this writing, and I have watched the film three times (not counting the viewing with director’s commentary) – once to review and twice more for the sheer joy of it.
The novel and the stage version is timeless. So is this presentation of the film.
It may be because the movie is so fresh in my mind, but I cannot recall a film that has done a better job of presenting the complexity of the human condition – both the beautiful parts and the ugly ones – into 157 minutes of screen time.
This movie is a masterpiece. It is an astounding achievement in filmmaking.
This is what all great art should strive to be.
Shop for Les Miserables on Blu-ray and DVD combo for a discounted price at Amazon.com (March 22, 2013 release date).