When asked to consider the standout acting performances of the silver screen, it is easy to think of the greats: Laurence Olivier’s Hamlet, Helen Mirren’s Elizabeth II, Meryl Streep’s Margaret Thatcher. For me, however, there is only one performance that jumps to mind; one that prompts such a genuine and deeply emotional reaction every time I watch it that I believe it deserves to be up on that list as much as any of them do. Anne Hathaway’s Fantine in the 2012 film Les Misérables depicts a woman who has quite literally lost everything: abandoned by her lover, separated from her daughter, and forced into prostitution by an unsympathetic employer, Fantine is left to mourn the life she once knew through, perhaps, one of the most iconic theatre songs of all time. Hathaway’s chilling rendition of I Dreamed a Dream takes the audience with her as she reflects on her life before, which now seems a million miles away.
Director Tom Hooper pulls no punches in giving Hathaway a single close-up shot for the entire duration of the song, in which she shows a frankly impressive range of emotion. She allows her voice to build, to break, and at times to be almost inaudible as she struggles for breath. It is the progression through grief for her lost youth; anger at the people that forced her into this situation; disbelief that the carefree girl she once was could fall so far; and eventually an almost inevitable numbness, that creates the simply heart-breaking performance Hathaway gives. After all, you don’t win an Oscar for just singing a song.
What takes Hathaway’s performance to the next level, however, is when you realise that she was singing live during the filming of this scene. The vast majority of musical films have a prepared soundtrack which the actors record in a studio beforehand and mouth along to during filming. For Les Mis though, Hooper demanded ‘authenticity,’ and so all actors sang live on set as they were acting. Hathaway somehow manages to belt a perfect note and sob some of the most convincing onscreen tears I’ve ever seen all at the same time. As the song reaches its climax, Fantine realises that she will never be able to return to her dream life and that she will never experience the true happiness she felt then again. Hathaway’s tears overspill and her voice reaches a crescendo that draws the last few viewers into Fantine’s plight. At this moment it is almost hard to separate the actor and the character, as even the most adamant of viewers cease to see Hathaway and can’t help but suspend their disbelief.
Screen acting offers a unique opportunity for actors to create performances with very subtle nuances, nuances that simply wouldn’t come across on the stage. Hathaway makes good use of this and, because of the extreme proximity of the camera, her performance relies largely on her eyes. At this final moment of numbness, Hathaway’s eyes, which until now have been distant, seeing only the dream that she sings of, suddenly return to reality. She looks around her, takes in the realities of her poverty and prostitution, and collects herself, ready for another customer. This very sudden switch to stillness and almost relief from the intensely emotive air of the last few moments has the ultimate effect of leaving the viewer shocked back into reality as well. The viewer feels what Fantine feels.
Hathaway’s seemingly effortless combination of acting and music – though admittedly not exactly hindered by the emotionally inspirational music itself – would be a technically difficult feat for any stage actor, but for them to be matched perfectly and to come across so effectively through the barrier of the big screen is the sign of a truly great performance. To me, Anne Hathaway does, in four and a half minutes, what so many actors could only dream of doing. She brings one of the most famed musical characters of all time, from one of the most mammoth musicals of all time, and makes every single viewer not merely sympathise, but genuinely empathise with a woman who can do absolutely nothing more but mourn the life she once knew.