Do you hear the people sing?

By Allan I. Ross

Film adaptation of 'world's most popular musical' is a triumph

“Les Misrables” is quite possibly the most perfect movie ever committed to film: A visionary adaptation of the powerful Broadway musical starring some of modern film’s most exciting actors — where could it go wrong?

By singing it, of course — or at least that would normally be the case. Musicals require a different kind of suspension of disbelief than you need when you go to the movies. Combining the two just always seems to have a layer of awkwardness to it. That’s because in a live musical, the actors have to stay in lock step with the pit and the other actors with whom they must give and receive cues. It doesn’t leave a lot of room for improv. Conversely, through the magic of editing, film seems to encourage the practice. So when you commit the former to the latter, you wind up with something that seems overly polished. It’s all so perfectly … perfect. Which would be perfect, if it didn’t also feel so perfectly fake.

And that is why director Tom Hooper is a genius for opting to have the actors “sing live” for the camera rather than lip sync to a pre-recorded track. He also forgoes typical camera movements to follow cast members with a handheld, fading in and out of focus and dodging in and out of light. It is simultaneously disorienting and spellbinding. The result is a live theater immediacy that allows the actors to be more relaxed with their performances and take more chances, not having to worry about where they are in their blocking or on the page. And what acting it is.

Hugh Jackman, as quintessential protagonist Jean Valjean, masterfully expresses every inch of his character’s transformation. He starts out as a filthy, sinewy, scraggly-bearded creature with red-rimmed eyes and rotten teeth who undergoes a spiritual enlightenment that propels him into the upper class. But Jackman, even when wearing frilly shirts and top hats, keeps that raw side readily accessible, an animal-like fear flickering in his eyes whenever he senses danger. You know this is a man who knows pain.

His songs perfectly trace the arc, from the futile “Look Down” through the transfigurative “Valjean’s Soliloquy” to the jubilant “Suddenly.” Jackman’s voice is mostly solid, choking on his lines or switching to spoken word to keep it feeling real. He does make a questionable decision, resulting in the movie’s lone misfire, in “Bring Him Home.” This is probably because his falsetto isn’t that strong, so he decided: Hey, why not go for volume? What should have been played as secret conversation with God turns into an operatic proscenium shaker, bringing that perfectly fake feeling back briefly.

Anne Hathaway, meanwhile, is everything an audience member could hope for in a Fantine. This is one of the most tragic characters in pop culture: a lower middle class girl who plummets down the poverty drain from homelessness to selling off pieces of her body — her hair, her teeth — to selling her body. When she lies in bed, sobbing out “I dreamed a dream in time gone by, when hope was high and life worth living …” after turning her first trick, you know — you just really, really know — what it feels like to be at the very worst part of life.

And then there’s Russell Crowe, the epitome of dickishness, as Inspector Javert, all smug eyes and haughty demeanor. He’d be completely despicable if you didn’t actually respect his sense of honor and justice. In any other story, this would be the good guy: the barrel chested, square-shouldered cop committed to upholding the law, so much of a goodie-goodie that he turns himself in for insubordination. Crowe’s dynamic portrayal does something so rare in movies — it makes the audience feel conflicted. In Javert’s signature song, “Stars,” when Crowe opens his throat and brings out the baritone, you kinda start to think, “Yeah, I can see where he’s coming from, too.”

Musicals enable a storyteller to reveal a character’s soul and convey complex feelings — the ache of unrequited love, the torment of guilt, the bliss of new fatherhood — that would be impossible to express in any other form than song. Hooper’s “Les Misrables” brings the best aspects of Cameron Macintosh’s musical — chiefly, those songs — and pairs it with the very best aspects of modern filmmaking.

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is how you make the perfect movie.