Les Miserables (****)

In what seems like an eternity, Tom Hooper’s long-awaited Les Miserables starring Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, and Anne Hathaway has finally been screened and finished.  Director Hooper came out to introduce his film at the Alice Tully Theater at Lincoln Center on Friday, November 23, 2012 and explained that he had just finished the picture at 2 a.m. the evening before.  The wait was well worth it.  Les Miserables is not only stunningly powerful, and beautifully crafted, it’s the best stage musical adaptation since Rob Marshall’s Chicago (2002).  Incredibly moving and featuring some of the most powerful musical numbers ever constructed, Tom Hooper tops his previous film The King’s Speech (2010) with artistry and passion.

The film tells the story of Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman), a paroled prisoner in the 1800s that over the course of decades, attempts to find redemption while a police inspector Javert (Russell Crowe) pursues him relentlessly.

What astonishes me is how emotionally invested I became with the characters.  I’ve never witnessed the stage musical on Broadway so this is my first outing with the musical.  Hooper brings focus to each player and ensures they are an integral part of the story and film.  Jean Valjean is our hero, placed firmly front and center, attached to the screen and centered cinematically in the medium for all the audience to invest.  Jackman has never been better, delivering his most devoted and tender turn of his career.  His opening number “What Have I Done?” and near closing “Bring Him Home” are his shining moments showcasing a vocal master class and a sensational acting piece that will put to rest any doubts about how talented he really is.  It’s unfortunate that despite his career-topping work, the Best Actor race is incredibly competitive and even more stacked.  It’s not a sure-thing for him to be named among the nominees but a strong campaign with a constant reminder of his preparation for the role, losing 30 pounds, vocal training, etc. could push him over.

Russell Crowe in the role of Javert was the only principal actor not to be featured (prominently) in the full-length trailer and featurette, placing speculation in his abilities to sing for the role.  Unfortunately, standing next to the likes of Jackman, Eddie Redmayne, and other cast members, his vocals are merely satisfactory.  There are many who may find his work here grating and ill-fitting.  Physically, Crowe fits the role quite well.  He’s always been an outstanding actor, proving time after time that he can deliver in the right roles, singing roles notwithstanding.  His final number “Soliloquy” shows his limitations considerably but Crowe cannot be completely faulted.  He makes do with what he has and is satisfactory.

In the role of Fantine, Anne Hathaway sings and seals her Oscar speech with “I Dreamed a Dream.”  Despite her role being incredibly brief, she makes an undeniable impression and has solidified herself in the Best Supporting actress category.  Hathaway lost nearly 15-pounds for the role, cut her hair off, and vocally prepared for weeks.  Hathaway doesn’t just act like Fantine; she becomes her, with blood, sweat, and tears and talent, voice, and art.  It’s her best turn since Rachel Getting Married (2008).

As Epinone, Samantha Barks is one of the year’s found treasures.  Devastatingly heartrending in her number “On my Own,” Barks shows she was born for the role.  Is Barks Oscar-worthy?  You bet she is.  As Cosette, Amanda Seyfried puts her best practices to use as she sings delightfully and remains a warming presence.  Don’t get me started on Young Cosette played by Isabelle Allen who is cute as a button and full of acting abilities.  In our rare instances of comedy, Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter stand out among a great ensemble.  “Master of the House” is a hilarious scene that has the two performers doing what they do best.

When you feel like you’re down by a few runs, a coach always sends in his pinch hitter to shut the other team down.  In this case, Tom Hooper got a whiff of other viable contenders like Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln and Ben Affleck’s Argo closing in on the Oscar game, Hooper went into his arsenal and sent in the stand out and very talented Eddie Redmayne to rid any doubts that Les Miserables is not the year’s most innovative picture.  More importanly, Redmayne has put himself in a prime position to be one of cinema’s most gifted thespians in years to come.  As Marius, Redmayne embodies him, heart and soul, and allows it to pour from the screen and into the aisles tear by tear.  Incredibly moving, Redmayne during “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables,” will make you believe in the power of Les Mis and even more, the power of the movies.

Eve Stewart’s Production Design is stellar and stands brightly next to other period contenders this year.  Danny Cohen’s Cinematography feels more appropriate and even more ambitious than his last outing with Hooper.  It’s a nomination that Cohen can easily capture.  Paco Delgado’s costumes are gorgeous and with his choices for Cosette and Marius’ wardrobes, he’ll stand out next to any contender this year at the Academy Awards.  Chris Dickens’ editing is fluid and in many ways is the reason the film succeeds so well.

For months, Universal Pictures and other industry analysts have praised Hooper’s decision to have the actors sing LIVE on set.  It’s an added accompaniment and Hooper along with the Sound crew, cleans and crisps up the music marvelously and skillfully.  The song “Suddenly,” written for the film, is an instant contender in Original Song.

Tom Hooper’s direction is what shines as he delivers zeal and intensity in his approach to bring every single actor and craftsman to their fullest potential.  He’s the conductor, composing in ways, his most personal work.  He deeply cares about the story, music, and production.  There are instances as the film engulfs you into the screen, where Les Miserables feels larger than life.  A cautionary tale about revenge and redemption that could be the great musical structures this side of the world.  Hooper respects the medium, appreciates and understands the narrative, and nurtures his performers like the father of cinema.  It’s one of the great directing achievements of the year.

The Oscars don’t need to look any further; Les Miserables destiny is at the top of the Academy Awards.  This is the best picture of the year!

The film opens everywhere December 25, 2012.

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