Meet the dream team: a preview of ‘Les Misérables’

Time Out takes a look at the new star-studded adaptation of the hit musical

The novel galvanised a nation. The musical broke records. Now the movie of ‘Les Misérables’ is 2013’s first big Oscar contender. Cath Clarke talks to the film’s director and actors.

When the new film of ‘Les Misérables’ hits cinemas in January 2013 expect to have at least one conversation along the lines of this tweet from Jemima Khan after the glitzy London premiere: ‘I hate musicals. I hate films that last longer than 90 mins. But I LOVED “Les Misérables”. Epic.’

The reviews for this starry Oscar-bait of a movie, featuring a frighteningly thin Anne Hathaway as factory girl-turned-prostitute Fantine, have been five-star gushy. But it’s hardly the first time that a version of Victor Hugo’s doorstop-sized 1862 novel has wowed the masses. Worldwide, more than 60 million people have seen the stage show. Though the film’s Brit director Tom Hooper (‘The King’s Speech’) only recently became one of them.

‘No,’ he admits, between photocalls at today’s junket at Claridges, ‘unlike pretty much all my cast, I never saw “Les Mis” as a kid.’ Hooper only went along to see the show in 2011 when his mate William Nicholson got the gig to rewrite it as a film script. Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boublil’s ridiculously addictive songs took up residence in his brain. ‘By the second time I saw it, the music was in my head,’ he says. ‘I mean in my head – day and night.’

This was just before ‘The King’s Speech’ hoovered up all those Oscars, and Hooper worked hard to get the job. He went away and read Hugo’s novel – a truly epic story which begins in 1815, when the peasant Jean Valjean (played in the film by Hugh Jackman) is released after 19 years in prison for stealing a loaf of bread.

Hooper is convinced the story’s time has come again. ‘We have economic and social inequality,’ he points out. ‘We’ve had protests in St Paul’s and on Wall Street. “Les Misérables” is the great anthem of the dispossessed. It’s the great cry from the heart of the afflicted.’

A quest for gritty realism runs through this multi-million dollar Hollywood project. Hooper admits he became ‘obsessed’ with the actors singing live – this is the first time it’s been pulled off in a film version of a stage musical. ‘I thought: God, is there a way of doing this?’ he says. ‘Where the people who don’t like musicals will go, “This works!”.’

And it does work. The actors’ voices crack with emotion, their faces crumple in pain. Anne Hathaway will break your heart. She’s on screen for 15 minutes. Honestly, the three of them in which she sings ‘I Dreamed a Dream’ (yes, Susan Boyle’s song) are worth the price of your ticket.

‘I’m a musical-theatre geek,’ Hathaway confesses cheerfully. The second time she saw the stage show she was seven and her mother was playing Fantine – her last acting job before quitting to become a full-time mum. In the flesh, Hathaway radiates good health (with the most flawless skin I’ve ever seen). But on screen she looks ravaged, like those ‘after’ pictures of meth addicts.

‘I really did feel strongly that as much of the physical transformation that could be real ought to be real,’ she says. Which is why she lost 25 pounds on a ‘near-death’ diet and volunteered to have her hair hacked off rather than wear a wig. Losing the weight, losing the hair – that alone would be enough to put her in contention for an Oscar. But her Fantine is so much more than just the physical changes.

To research, Hathaway read modern interviews with women who have been trafficked or forced into being sex workers. ‘There are things that I read which I’ll never forget,’ she says. ‘The emotion that emerges is undeniably shame and pain, and deep, deep barely contained rage.’ Her performance blazes with anger. ‘Sometimes you have so much in common with your character it feels like your should return your pay cheque,’ Hathaway says with a smile. ‘This was not one of those films.’

The bootcamp rigour was there from the start: all the actors were put through ‘X-Factor’-style auditions. ‘Everyone went through it, even the honchos like Hugh Jackman and Russell Crowe,’ says Eddie Redmayne, the 30-year-old Cambridge graduate best known for his theatre work, who plays the student revolutionary Marius.

He spent four months training with a voice coach. ‘You’re learning how to sing with vocal strength but without contorting your face,’ he explains, ‘so that you don’t kill a close-up. Basically you learn how to sing without looking like a gremlin.’ On set the actors had hidden microphones and listened to the piano accompanist on earpieces.

‘Les Mis’ is a hit-in-waiting. Which means it’s déjà vu for producer Sir Cameron Mackintosh – London theatre’s Mr Big. This is the first time he’s personally got involved in bringing a production to the screen. And he’s beaming like a proud dad.

‘I love the differences between the two versions,’ he says. ‘That expression “Vive la différence! ” could have been coined for this moment.’ And for the record he also loves the Susan Boyle’s version of “I Dreamed a Dream”. ‘Susan did it in a wonderful, simple, but instinctive way. She completely understood the lyrics. Until Susan, the score of “Les Mis” had never had a hit. Then, suddenly, this song went viral. We owe Susan Boyle a huge amount.’

As Hugo writes in ‘Les Misérables’, ‘There is nothing like a dream to create the future…’

Read what we thought of 'Les Misérables'

  • Les Misérables

    Rating: 4/5

    The heart of the film belongs to Anne Hathaway, on screen for just 15 minutes as Fantine. When Susan Boyle sang ‘I Dreamed a Dream’ she belted it out like Elaine Paige. Here Hathaway reinvents the song as a cry from the heart.