Although it took three whole decades to happen, a grand cinematic production of Les Misérables was inevitable from day one. One of the most popular and long-running shows in the history of musical theatre, this wrenching and triumphant adaptation of Victor Hugo’s novel has been a prestigious tenant of development hell since the late 1980s.
There have been many “talkie” adaptations of the novel, including a perfectly fine 1998 version starring Liam Neeson, Geoffrey Rush, and Claire Danes. However, even this failed to capture a lasting place in history. Rather like The Count Of Monte Cristo starring Jim Caviezel and Guy Pearce, it will be vaguely remembered as something we are pretty sure we enjoyed years ago. Adapting this musical is another beast entirely. This is, in showbiz terms, the textbook definition of “a big deal.” After all this anticipation, it will almost certainly become the definitive film version of the show, for good or ill. And so it must be done right the first time. We are a long way from Spider-Man now.
Weaving several life stories around the bloody Paris Uprising of the 19th century, Les Misérables follows downtrodden peasant Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) from crime to punishment to a lifelong quest for freedom and peace. Try as he might, he cannot get a break, no matter how noble his actions on behalf of his fellow man. Having served time for charitable pilfering in his youth, he finds himself a marked man for life. Hot on his heels is ruthless policeman Javert (Russell Crowe), who makes it his purpose to put Valjean back under lock and key.
This production appears to be suitably stark, bleak, and rain-soaked, complete with numerous soot-covered waifs, which after all has been the popular symbol of the show for all these years. This musical has a vast thematic and narrative scale, and from the long shots across windswept France and low-angle glimpses through church windows, it appears that those responsible have taken full advantage of their cameras to boost the scale even further.
What a gorgeous plum this is for Tom Hooper, the dark horse director whose biographical drama The King’s Speech ran away with the 2011 Academy Awards. Having gotten straight to work on this new high-profile project, he has probably insured himself against the fleeting legacy that sudden triumphs like The King’s Speech often win for their directors. Above all, he deserves our thanks and praise for realizing this project before Baz Luhrmann or Joel Schumacher could get to it. Schumacher has already made a giddy train wreck of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Phantom Of The Opera. And while we have yet to see if Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, Anne Hathaway and Amanda Seyfried have the pipes to carry off a musical epic, the bar is fairly low. Gerard Butler, who had the bearing but not the range for Phantom, was woefully adrift among the high-tenor laments made famous by Michael Crawford. If Russell Crowe can outcroon him, and he probably can, then everything should be fine. Another notable entry on this quasi-operatic scale is Tim Burton’s Sweeney Todd, which had the right atmosphere and an eager cast, but generally lacked the vocal prowess to highlight Sondheim’s masterful songwriting. Hooper, having proven himself adept at period drama with large-scale television productions like Elizabeth I and John Adams, and then with his latest Oscar-nabbing feature, seems like a good candidate to succeed under pressure with such a massive undertaking. My first choice, if I were allowed to decide such things, would have been Joe Wright, director of Atonement and Pride and Prejudice, if only to see if he could stage the entire Uprising in one continuous shot.
It is safe to hope that the cast, star-stuffed as it is, will satisfy on all counts. The show’s most maniacal fans may take issue with Anne Hathaway’s breathy, if lovely, performance of “I Dreamed A Dream,” but after all, that is how a character dying of consumption should sing. There, at least, is an idea that no production of this show (or indeed of La Traviata) seems to have taken into account.
This is one pretty trailer, which wisely avoids excessive fancincess and makes very simple promises. With plenty of big-screen firepower and produced by Cameron Mackintosh, who made it famous to begin with, Les Misérables is going to be big, sad, and elegant — presumably just what its adoring fans want.
Les Misérables is a production of Working Title Films, to be distributed by Universal Pictures, and has been scheduled for release on December 14, 2012.