5 – Look Down
No, not the opening number that’s also known as “Work Song”. I’m talking about the film’s second usage of the tune. Though the stage musical has other ideas, to me, Act 2 of the film starts with the 9 year time skip after Valjean adopts Cosette. “Look Down” begins this part, and it accomplishes two major things: it shows the revolution element that governs the plot of most of the film’s second half, and it introduces new important characters Marius, Enjolras, and Gavroche, the last who handles most of the singing in this song. It’s a dynamically staged number with the young orphan and his friends running around and stealing food from the rich, and with the kid hitching a ride on a stage coach for the second verse. Daniel Huttlestone in his film debut does nice work, showing the anger that resides among all the poor. I’m also fond of how the chorus chanting is used here compared to the film’s opening number. At the start of the movie, it’s the lowly prisoners reminding themselves to not dare meet the eyes of their guards who rule them. Now, it’s a call by the people at the bottom of society towards the rich, urging them to notice the inequalities in Paris. The difference encapsulates the new themes of the film: the weak is rising up.
4 – Master of the House
I’m not a big fan of the singing of either Sacha Baron Cohen or Helena Bonham Carter in this film – both did much better vocally in Sweeney Todd – but their big signature number “Master of the House” is still a highlight of the movie. You might think it’s just a case of standing out in a crowd, as it’s a comic relief number surrounded by serious drama acts, but there’s more to it than that. It’s a very funny number, for one, and with so much going on, I keep discovering new things every time I see it. There is an impressive array of swindling and stealing going on by the Thénardiers, much of which you’re likely to miss on the first go. It’s also a great way to introduce us to the two characters and the dynamic between them, with Cohen bragging and playing the big boss, and Carter dryly berating him from the sidelines. Cool stuff, and after the emotional Fantine arc of the story, a bit of up-tempo fun is just what the doctor ordered. Every time I see the film, I find myself looking forward to this one more and more.
3 – On My Own
I don’t know much about the technical aspects of singing, so maybe I’m way off-base here, but in my ears, Samantha Barks is the best pure singer in the whole cast. Nowhere is this more apparent than in her character Eponine’s one big solo number, an ode about her unrequited love for Marius. The staging of it is simple, with Barks just walking down a street in the rain and singing her heart out, but that’s arguably all the song calls for. A proper tearjerker.
2 – Valjean’s Soliloquy (What Have I Done?)
The first instance of Tom Hooper keeping the camera close to the actor during the intimate song numbers. “Valjean’s Soliloquy” is the climax of the film’s prologue, and it lays the foundation for everything that is to come. Valjean has been shown kindness by the bishop, betrayed his trust, and seen the other cheek turned. Now he wrestles with himself over his very nature, and it signals a turning point for him. He paces back and forth in the church, marvels at the bishop’s selflessness, and decides that he needs to become an honest man. Hugh Jackman is great here in the film’s first big acting scene, going through confusion, doubt, anger, and determination, before storming out into the world and declaring that “another story must begin”. Cue swelling orchestral score, panning up to the sky, and the start of the film proper. Epic.
1 – I Dreamed a Dream
Yeah, you knew this was coming. “On My Own” is powerful and all, but for the film’s true emotional highpoint, nothing tops Anne Hathaway crying her eyes out while letting us know just how miserable her life has become. A key difference between the two performances is that while Barks is a great singer, Hathaway is a great actor, and she acts the hell out of this song in one long unbroken close-up take. Even after seeing the film four times, this part still gives me goosebumps.