I feel the need to open with a quick disclosure: I have generally low tolerance for musicals. What intrigued me about the 2012 version of Les Misérables was director Tom Hooper’s decision to have his cast record their vocals live during shooting. For months before its Christmas Day theatrical release, a short featurette ran before seemingly every film in theaters explaining that this wasn’t one of those movies where the actors lip-synced on set to a professional recording. In short, it seemed like Hooper’s intention was to focus on acting first, providing the actors with the freedom to make the singing an organic part of their performances.
While it wasn’t intriguing enough to drag me into theaters, having screened the new Blu-ray edition I can say that the gambit worked. The performances are indeed powerful throughout Les Mis, in large part due to the unpredictable, raw emotion the cast invested in their singing. If you didn’t know, there is no spoken dialogue in this film (well okay, technically there are maybe a dozen or so spoken lines). Not everything is a full-on song; the actors adopt a sort of sing-speak delivery for scenes that bridge musical numbers. A notably gritty, grimy mise en scène lends to the visceral rawness of this adaptation. Opening in 1815, as imprisoned Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) slaves away under the watchful eye of Javert (Russell Crowe), we feel something of his misery thanks to the richly detailed art direction that pulls us into his world.
Without a doubt, Les Mis puts every bit of its reported $61 million budget (a surprisingly low figure, given the epic scope of the production) on screen. The story follows the initial paroling of Valjean (he served some 19 years for stealing bread for his family), who subsequently is granted an impossibly rare second chance at success by the sympathetic Bishop of Digne (Colm Wilkinson). Under an assumed identity, Valjean becomes a respected businessman and mayor of Montreuil-sur-Mer, France, some eight years after his release. But Javert continues to pursue him relentlessly.
Meanwhile, Fantine (Anne Hathaway, in an Oscar-winning performance) is forced out of Valjean’s factory and onto the streets. There she is abused and degraded as a prostitute. Hathaway makes the most of her rather limited screen time, especially with her oft-praised show-stopping musical number “I Dreamed a Dream” (repositioned in the narrative slightly for dramatic effect). Fantine’s young daughter Cosette is played by Isabelle Allen, later by Amanda Seyfried as the story jumps ahead many years. Valjean, devastated that those under his employ were responsible for the tragic fate of Fantine, vows to care for Cosette. The girl has heretofore has been cared for (and not very well) by a pair of unscrupulous innkeepers, the Thénardiers (Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter).
Later, as Cosette reaches adulthood, the plot expands to include violent student revolutions in France. We meet a host of additional supporting characters in the second half, including the grown biological daughter of the Thénardiers, Éponine (luminous theatre veteran Samantha Barks, making her feature film debut). Her friend Marius (Eddie Redmayne) is among the primary student revolutionaries and the one who falls in love with Cosette. It’s a sprawling story that needs every minute of its 158-minute running time. Though longer than the previous U.S. film adaptation from 1998, the 2012 version is actually more economical in its storytelling than any of the older film adaptations. Hooper keeps up the forward momentum throughout, building to a palpable emotional payoff as the story reaches its bittersweet conclusion.
Universal has given Les Misérables a truly exceptional high definition transfer. The 35mm cinematography by Danny Cohen is consistently a pleasure to look at, no matter what one might feel about the movie itself. With Oscar-nominated costume and production design, a high level of fine detail is vitally important and the Blu-ray delivers. Many scenes play out under very dark lighting, yet rather than becoming murky and indistinct, these shadowy scenes maintain the detail and clarity of the brighter sequences.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 presents the Oscar-winning sound mixing perfectly as well. I wouldn’t say this is the most immersive surround mix I’ve heard, but the score expands beautifully to the rear channels. The LFE channel is employed very judiciously, taking a less-is-more approach that makes the most of the more bass-heavy moments. Of course, the singing is the most important aspect of Les Mis and luckily the clarity is spine-tingling. All told, the technical specs on this disc are utterly superb.
Supplemental features are not as expansive as on many major releases, but director Tom Hooper provides a relatively engaging commentary track. “Les Misérables: A Revolutionary Approach” is an hour-long making-of, watchable as one long piece or in six parts. Although it gets a tad bit too self-congratulatory and includes more than a little too many film clips, this is a solid series of behind-the-scenes featurettes. “The Original Masterwork” is a ten-minute featurette that offers a little info about Victor Hugo’s original novel.
Though I’m still not convinced that Anne Hathaway’s brief supporting turn truly deserved all the accolades heaped upon it, Les Misérables offers an emotionally involving viewing experience that is likely to captivate even the most stringent musical-phobes. Hugh Jackman, in particular, turns in a startlingly committed performance, using the full range of his impressive, Broadway-seasoned voice. I’d say even the frequently criticized Russell Crowe shines brightly, despite his notably gruffer, unpolished singing voice. It’s testament to director Hooper’s decision to emphasize powerful acting, letting the singing complement that rather than the other way around.