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‘Les Mis’ Director Lauds Jackman, Recalls ’King’s Speech’

'Les Miserables'
Poster art for "Les Miserables" with Hugh Jackman as Jean Valjean. The film version of Victor Hugo's 1862 novel is written for the screen by William Nicholson. Source: Les Miserables Film via Bloomberg

Tom Hooper’s last movie was about a man who got help from a speech coach. His new movie features a cast that had help from a voice coach.

Hooper, who won a best-director Oscar in 2011 for “The King’s Speech” -- the story of Queen Elizabeth II’s stuttering dad -- now presents “Les Miserables,” featuring a stellar cast with mixed melodic abilities. While male lead Hugh Jackman is solid as the ex-convict Jean Valjean, Russell Crowe is musically underwhelming as his adversary Javert, and he’s not alone.

Hooper and I meet in the homely, rust-colored suite of a London hotel. The Oxford-educated filmmaker, 40, looks preppy in his blue velvet blazer. He’s as reserved as when we last met, just before his Oscar. I ask why he cast non-singers.

“I auditioned hundreds and hundreds of people, and the difficulty is being able to hold a film camera in close-up,” he says. “There’s a good reason why film stars are film stars, which is, they have an extraordinary magnetism on camera which a lot of people that are not film stars simply don’t have.”

Hooper tried to enhance the recordings using software, but “there was always a loss,” so he left “the raw vocal.”

Australian-born Jackman was his first and only choice for Valjean. “If Hugh didn’t exist, I would not have made the film,” says Hooper, listing Jackman’s tenor voice, his career in movies and musicals, his physical stamina, and his “grace and kindness.”

Crowe Power

As the policeman Javert, he needed “someone who the audience could believe might vanquish this guy. If you really think about it, Russell’s one of the few actors who has that kind of power.”

Crowe was apparently a delight on shoot. “He was so enthusiastic. He said when we met that he hadn’t been as excited about doing a film since ‘A Beautiful Mind.’”

As the story was set in France, Hooper felt no pressure to cast British leads. Besides, he’s half Australian. (His Australian mother was the one who first brought an unknown play called “The King’s Speech” to his attention.)

Throughout, there was “this constant voice in my ear” -- that of “Les Miserables” composer Claude-Michel Schoenberg -- pushing for more feeling. “The French are passionate!” the composer told Hooper. “They’re not like you buttoned-up English, they’re not all so scared to show emotion!”

The filmmaker scarcely needed coaxing. Having touched audiences with “The King’s Speech,” he was determined to “stay in that emotional zone.”

Emotional Reserve

I point out the irony in someone so reserved being so keen to tackle sentiments.

“I’m English,” he says with a nervous laugh. Then comes a quiet confession: The Valjean death scene in his own movie still makes him cry.

“Why am I crying?” he wonders aloud. “My father, who’s alive and well, will one day face this, and it’s hard not to think about it when you’re watching it.”

Before filming started, he remembered his father’s own words. “He said I want to master the art of dying well,” recalls Hooper, “in a way that causes you and your brother and sister as little pain as possible, and I want to have left you as happy as possible.” It might as well be Valjean speaking.

Victor Hugo’s novel “looks death square on: It doesn’t flinch from it,” says Hooper. “Death in modern films is quite often either a narrative device or a kind of comic-strip thing that happens.”

Penniless Prostitution

There’s certainly no shortage of emotionality in the movie. In one harrowing scene, penniless Fantine (Anne Hathaway), who has sold her hair and a few teeth, resigns herself to a life of prostitution as she sings “I Dreamed a Dream.” In a single three-minute take, she works her voice from a soft murmur into a belting crescendo, and gradually falls to pieces.

The filmmaker sees “extraordinary parallels” between “Les Miserables” and recent events such as the Occupy Wall Street movement and the Arab spring.

“We live in a moment when images of revolution are commonplace on TV,” he says. “That anger about economic inequality is huge.”

Has the income gap widened between himself and the world’s poor since “The King’s Speech,” which grossed $414 million worldwide? “Marginally,” he says. “When you make an independent movie as a fledgling director, you don’t see much of that.”

Life has been all work and no play ever since. “I have had no down time,” he says. “It’s basically been, how few hours can you sleep and work productively?”

“Not all films are like that,” he concludes. “But this one was insane.”

“Les Miserables” opens Friday in the U.K. and Ireland. It has opened in the U.S.: for a review, click here.

(Farah Nayeri writes for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are her own.)

Muse highlights include Richard Vines on food, James Russell on architecture and Mike Di Paola on conservation.

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