Review: Les Misérables | Clothes on Film

Starring: Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, Anne Hathaway
Directed By: Tom Hooper

Lingering death scenes, honourable gentlemen with puffed out chests, a little girl in rags sweeping the floor; to say Les Misérables takes itself very, very seriously is an understatement. Victor Hugo’s original novel is not known for its slapstick either (the clue is in the title), yet director Tom Hooper’s adaptation is so earnest as to verge on parody. This is Carol Reed’s Oliver! only with a good deal more rain and tears, and a lot less Oom-Pah-Pah.

To Hooper’s credit, Les Misérables never strives to be something it is not. Dramatic musical theatre on a grand scale should be expected by anyone with knowledge of the source material. Pleasingly for those not entranced at the exquisite agony of Anne Hathaway’s Fantine grizzling through ‘I Dreamed a Dream’, there are far more interesting sights on display, particularly Paco Delgado’s bounty of early 19th century period costume, and even more particularly his flamboyant use of colour. Red is the most evocative colour in costume. It can be used delicately, like Dorothy’s red slippers in The Wizard of Oz to symbolise power, or more blatantly such as Jean Valjean’s (Hugh Jackman) blood red slave rags during the exhilarating opening sequence of Les Misérables. However, the result is the same; for good and ill, it draws the eye.

The three colour palette of red, white and blue is most noticeable in Les Misérables as the tide turns against imperialist rule. Mainly worn by the younger members of the cast (their characters – students – initiated the uprising), it can also be seen on rosettes. At one point in the story, Inspector Javert appropriates a tri-colour rosette or ‘cockade’ to disguise himself as a revolution sympathiser.

Red is employed constantly during Les Misérables, most readably as one third of a tri-colour palette incorporating white and blue to denote the stirrings of the June Rebellion. Just as visible, though less definitive with regards to interpretation, is Fantine’s deep red dress when she turns to prostitution in order to feed her daughter. The obvious connotation is aggressively sexual, yet this contrasts with Fantine as such a wretched figure. Furthermore the red lacks fire; it is not sexy but oppressed, positioning her alongside Valjean at the beginning of the story (her baby pink dress meanwhile remains a peculiar choice). As Valjean struggles to escape his past, Jackman’s costumes generally become dark and bleached of life, and yet carefully note the colours he wears in the sewer tunnels… Valjean eventually fades as his clothes do, unlike obsessive pursuer Inspector Javert (Russell Crowe), whose cold blues reflect his dogged determination and apathy. There is no mistaking young Cosette (Amanda Seyfried), an angel in fresh white. She is the untouched hope for France.

Costume details are pleasing throughout. Lapels engulf on dress coats, while frocks prioritise (with tendency toward social class) on heaving cleavage. The overall look is theatrical; realistic if not wholly real, it reflects the tone of the film perfectly. However in such a grim tale even the appearance of Thénardier and Madame Thénardier’s (Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter) scheming double act cannot lift the mood. Les Misérables is all very worthy; how you buy into it will depend on your love of the novel and, crucially, your love of classic melodrama. Plus for such a large scale production the actual uprising is remarkably minor, amounting to what appears to be a few plucky students willing to die for a cause that to those with little knowledge of French history is barely explained beyond impassioned flag waving.

Spanish born Paco Delgado also created costumes for Pedro Almodóvar’s The Skin I Live In, plus some unobtrusive, yet memorable work for Biutiful. Les Misérables is expected to be his first real shot at an Academy Award nomination.

As the credits roll on Les Misérables following a grand pan to the sky in typical dramatic musical fashion, it is difficult not to feel manipulated. Yet the result is so heartfelt and sumptuous, most viewers will not care a jot. Seemingly to Tom Hooper it does not matter why you cried; it just matters that you did.

Les Misérables is released on 25th December in the U.S. and 11th January in the UK.

© 2012 – 2014, Lord Christopher Laverty.