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Tom Hooper to direct film version of Les Misérables musical

The King's Speech director's next project is a screen adaptation of the musical version of Victor Hugo's epic. Can he make it work?

Russell Crowe is said to be in the running to play the relentless Inspector Javert in a screen version of the musical Les Misérables, to be directed next year by Tom Hooper.
Russell Crowe is said to be in the running to play the relentless Inspector Javert in a screen version of the musical Les Misérables, to be directed next year by Tom Hooper.

Winning the Oscar for best director must work wonders for the confidence. Before Tom Hooper had even placed his golden statue on the mantlepiece, he was being linked with projects such as Iron Man 3, an adaptation of Macbeth and a long-awaited film version of Deborah Moggach’s bestselling book Tulip Fever. But the man who made The King’s Speech refused to take the easy option of a blockbuster or costume drama. Instead, he will next grapple with the musical – perhaps the trickiest of cinematic genres – when he begins filming Les Misérables next year. And unsurprisingly, because it’s Hooper, the cast is getting starrier by the week.

Hugh Jackman has already been given the nod to play Valjean, the protagonist of Victor Hugo’s 1862 novel set in post-Napoleonic France. It makes a lot of sense. The rugged Jackman is the perfect choice to animate the parole-breaking former convict trying to make a new life for himself, but unable to escape the attentions of Inspector Javert. As for Javert, last week Russell Crowe was linked with the role – though such speculation seems to stem from one throwaway comment in the Daily Mail and the fact that both men are Australian. Paul Bettany is a surer bet, having already auditioned for the part.

Still, Bettany’s musical experience is limited to busking on the streets of London. All of which makes Crowe’s potential involvement slightly more credible, thanks to his well-publicised involvement in a rock ’n’ roll band and his time as Dr Scott in the stage musical The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Jackman, meanwhile, actually started out as an actor in Australian musicals and is considering a series of concerts in London and New York. But it’s a relief that all three at least know their way around a tune. So often, the narrative of a film musical is overshadowed by whether a Hollywood actor can actually sing or not. Pierce Brosnan was so bad in Mamma Mia!, for example, that some people wondered whether it was an elaborate, postmodern joke.

Nevertheless, Mamma Mia! was a hugely successful film. Although it’s debatable whether it is actually a film at all, or just a whole host of Abba songs shoehorned into some kind of plot about a woman working out who her father could be. And that’s the problem with musicals in the cinema. The moment the characters stop talking and burst into song, any dramatic realism is immediately lost.

But Mamma Mia! confirmed that the best way to make a musical work on the big screen is to embrace the inherent ridiculousness of the form and be unashamedly joyful. It’s why the brilliantly playful Grease is so good and the grandiose Evita so toe-curlingly awful. There’s never the sense that Madonna is doing anything other than frantically emoting via the bombastic songs of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice.

Only Chicago, in recent times, stands up as a musical that made the perilous journey from stage to screen intact. Again, it worked because it was so enjoyable – Catherine Zeta Jones was wonderful as the vampy vaudeville queen and the whole piece is a sassily entertaining comment on showbiz. Although whether it really deserved six Oscars in 2003 (including, incredibly, beating the likes of The Pianist and The Lord of the Rings to Best Picture) is something of a moot point.

Since Chicago, Tim Burton has ramped up the cartoon horror in Sweeney Todd to pretty impressive effect, but Phantom of the Opera bombed – although whoever thought that Joel “Batman & Robin” Schumacher would be the right director for Lloyd Webber’s musical deserves, well, 24-hour exposure to All I Ask of You. Interestingly, Jackman was the first choice to play the Phantom, but his schedule didn’t allow him to take the lead role. So, instead, they gave it to Gerard Butler... who, of course, had never sung before. Great choice.

So it’ll be fascinating to see how Hooper approaches Les Misérables. Previous – non-musical – versions have adapted the book in crushingly boring fashion (remember the 1998 film starring Liam Neeson and Uma Thurman? Thought not).

To tackle the awkwardness of combining spoken word and song (which the stage musical does by being almost entirely sung), the ­Oscar-nominated writer of Gladiator and Shadowlands, Boll Nicholson, has been hired to bash the script into shape.

Cameron Mackintosh – the impresario behind the long-running stage musical – is on board as a producer, and the film will boast the composer Claude-Michel Schönberg’s original score. Let’s hope Hooper doesn’t take the stage production too literally, though. After all, Valjean’s solo in the prologue is called, you’ve guessed it, What Have I Done?.

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