British Cinema, so long a barren wasteland of straight-to-TV bores and low budget bawdy comedies, can now lay claim to its share of international stars. Recent Oscar-touted films such as Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, The King's Speech, and Skyfall have showcased the wealth of talent present in British Cinema while still proving that its films can be successful internationally.
Much-sought-after directors like Danny Boyle, whose sleeper-hit Slumdog Millionaire was awarded best picture in 2009, have shown that Britain is capable of producing more than villains for Hollywood popcorn films. However the man making the biggest splash internationally at the moment is Tom Hooper.
Les Miserables looked certain to win this year's Oscar for best picture, having become something of an international sensation since its premier. Only a late surge of publicity for Argo stopped what was considered by many bookies to be a sure thing. This would have made it Hooper's second “Best Picture” award in three years after winning it for The King's Speech two years ago.
The prospect of committing a stage musical to the screen is a risky one for any director, and there were more than a few eyebrows raised when the project was announced. Hooper though “hit all the right notes” and the gambles taken during filming (Live singing in a film!? Surely not!) appear to have paid dividends.
The King's Speech. was, to be sure, a very English film. Hooper created what was essentially a love letter to being British. The feel-good nature of the story may have struck a chord with international audiences, but the fussy emotional repression and stiff-upper-lipped resilience in the face of adversity are so ineffably English that those of us with an Anglo-streak can't help but feel a tingle of patriotism watching it. To be sure, the star-studded cast did the film no harm at the box office, but The King's Speech really did feel like a triumph for British Cinema.
As Les Mis soaks up praise from critics and audiences worldwide, it really does feel decidedly less like a British film and much more universal. Admittedly, it is a hard for a film to feel “British” when it's set in France and boasts actors from America, Australia, New Zealand, and all corners of the British Isles.
The greatest strength of Les Mis though is its universality. Love, loneliness, and redemption are not unique to the English, Australians, Americans, or indeed the French. Tom Hooper has made a profoundly human film that never feels as though it's stepping into the exploitation/Oscar-bait category, which is to be applauded.
Tom Hooper by no means made a perfect film in Les Mis (Hooper didn't even receive a “best director” nod at either the BAFTAs or the Oscars). He may not even have made his best film, with both The Damned United and The King's Speech difficult to match for tight, well-measured drama. The film triumphs though because of Hooper's pitch-perfect understanding of the story's humanity, regardless of whatever dramatic shortcomings the film may have. It's unlikely that Les Mis will be remembered as Hooper's finest film, but it will be remembered as the film that turned him from local prodigy into international superstar.